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It’s still very early in the season, but Sunday night’s 31-30 loss to the Ravens has to have caused a lot of concern inside the defensive meeting rooms at Gillette Stadium.
Faced with the first decent test of the 2012 season, the Patriots defense failed almost across the board in a performance that was reminiscent of the two biggest stinkers from last season: the losses at Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
Up front, the normally standout line blew gap control all over the place to allow running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to get to the second level with ease and rush for a combined 118 yards on 24 carries (4.9-yard average).
The linebacking trio of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and rookie Dont’a Hightower was left out to dry by the line, but didn’t help themselves either by picking the wrong gaps and missing tackles.
And then there was the secondary, which started out with great promise following a gift interception thrown by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to safety Steve Gregory, then reverted to 2011 form with blown coverages, missed tackles, and poor technique.
The question the Patriots have to be asking themselves is: Is it time to change how we do things — at least against good teams? Because an increased talent level alone doesn’t look like it will be good enough against elite teams.
The pass rush was completely deficient against the Ravens, with a grand total of zero sacks, six hurries, and two knockdowns. The eight total quarterback pressures were the lowest for the Patriots since Week 5 last season against the Jets.
The Patriots sent an extra rusher just four times in 39 attempts against Flacco, and two of those weren’t designed blitzes, they were Mayo rushing after the running back stayed in. So there were just two called blitzes (5.1 percent).
The Ravens’ offensive personnel aren’t that dangerous on the outside. The Patriots must have thought that if they played coverage, Flacco would make enough mistakes on his own. He might have, if there had been any pressure.
The Patriots were so desperate to find a pass rush that at one point in the second half, they had Rob Ninkovich (who was completely stoned by mammoth rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele all game) flip to the right side, inserted Trevor Scott at left end, and brought in Jermaine Cunningham at defensive tackle. Still nothing.
If the replacement officials are not going to call holding on a consistent basis, Bill Belichick must rethink his tried-and-true strategy of blitzing only on third down or in desperate times, and playing zone coverage behind it. At least against good teams. Against most of the league, the Patriots can play that way and win easily.
But a disturbing pattern is developing against the better teams, especially as the quarterback play in the league has gotten better in recent years.
It’s still early. There’s no reason to panic. But the first real test showed not much has changed since last season.
The positional ratings against the Ravens:
Quarterback (4.5 out of 5)
This was vintage Tom Brady. From directing the no-huddle attack, to changing plays and coverages, Brady was terrific. Could not find one single throw that wasn’t where it needed to be. There are probably two plays Brady would like to have back. On the completion to Wes Welker on third and goal early in the fourth quarter on an out pattern, Brandon Lloyd was probably the better option. And on Brady’s final throw, the incompletion to Rob Gronkowski on third and 16 facing pressure, it was probably the only time in the game when the Ravens got the better of Brady. He likely thought the Ravens were playing “two man” (two deep safeties with man coverage underneath). So Brady thought linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who had a superb game, was matched up with Gronkowski. Instead, Ellerbe came on a blitz that freed up linebacker Paul Kruger for the pressure, and safety Bernard Pollard picked up Gronkowski. It took the Ravens all game, but they finally fooled Brady in a critical spot.
Running backs (2.5 out of 5)
Outside of Stevan Ridley’s drop, not much poor play out of this group, just not a lot standout plays, if any. The decision to play Danny Woodhead (52 snaps) so much more than Ridley (25) seems a little curious — possibly some overthinking there. I’m sure the Patriots like Woodhead more in the pass game, especially lined out wide, but the Ravens can be run on with a power runner like Ridley.
Receivers (3 out of 5)
Three drops from Welker, Lloyd, and Kellen Winslow, and three penalties erased some good work from this group, especially Welker. He had two tough catches and two big yards-after-the-catch plays. You don’t see safety Ed Reed look bad very often, but that’s how the Patriots made him look on the 59-yard pass to Welker. They baited Reed with the out, then beat him on the go down the sideline. Well-designed by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.Continued...