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.
The Ravens disguised a lot of coverages against Gronkowski, but the Patriots are going to need to find a way to get him the ball more than three targets. He didn’t pass-block very much at all. The incompletion to Julian Edelman in the end zone is a tough play. You’d like the pass a little better, but even so, Edelman should catch it the first time, take the hit and hold on.
The reverse to Edelman that lost 13 yards was just a bad play; it wasn’t poorly executed. The play is dependent on the outside linebacker crashing the run. A direct snap to the running back isn’t going to get him to do that.
On the drive before halftime, Brady threw a perfect pass down the sideline to Lloyd, but the receiver had hesitated in his route. Brady was not happy.
Offensive line (2.5 out 5)
About average in the pass game again with two sacks, six hurries, and four knockdowns. The stuffed runs (eight this time) continue to be a problem. The Patriots aren’t getting much push. Nate Solder allowed a sack and 1.5 hurries. Logan Mankins (2.5 stuffs) and Dan Connolly (knockdown, 1.5 stuffs) were average. Center Ryan Wendell had his first rough outing with a sack, two hurries, knockdown, and a stuff. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (hurry, half-knockdown) was very good but he’s still not moving very well.
Defensive line (2 out of 5)
Thank goodness for Chandler Jones (four hurries) and Kyle Love — who combined for all six hurries — or else the Patriots might never have gotten off the field. On the first play of the game, the Ravens tried to send a message to Jones by bringing fullback Vonta Leach at him on a wham play. Jones sidestepped it and helped on the tackle. Most veterans don’t have that kind of awareness. Jones also made that late fourth-down stop when he stood up left tackle Michael Oher.
I’m sure Osemele had someone take a picture of his pancake block on Vince Wilfork on an 8-yard Rice run early in the second quarter. That never happens. Wilfork, who destroyed the Ravens in the AFC Championship game, was double-teamed most of the game. Love and Wilfork both had multiple gap problems.
Linebackers (1.5 out of 5)
The pass interference penalty on Mayo against Rice on third down was rough. My problem wasn’t so much the call — there weren’t any good replays — it was that the flag was thrown by line judge Esteban Garza, who was behind Mayo all the way on the other side of the field. Ridiculous.
Brandon Spikes completely knocked left guard Ramon Harewood to the ground and then took on Leach on one tackle. And then Yanda a few plays later. That’s about all Spikes contributed as his peaks-and-valleys career continues.
Mayo made a rare big gaffe on the Ravens’ first play of the second half, when he ducked his head into the wrong hole, which allowed Rice to run for 15 yards. Not a good job by the run defense on Rice’s 7-yard touchdown. Love was shoved out of his gap by Harewood, and Spikes went into the wrong gap, plus Hightower failed to get over the top of a block. That resulted in an untouched touchdown. Should never happen.
Secondary (2 out of 5)
It’s a shame that Devin McCourty dropped an interception and had the late penalty (the other one was ticky-tack), because this was his best game in some time with four pass breakups, a pass defensed, and another good pass coverage. Great play by McCourty to knock away the pass to Smith on third and 15 late in the third quarter.
On the Ravens’ third-and-13 conversion that went to replay, McCourty has to find a way to stop Anquan Boldin shy of the marker. On the first touchdown to Torrey Smith, Kyle Arrington didn’t lay a hand on Smith. There’s no way he could run with him. The Pitta catch-and-run touchdown is on Gregory. Yes, McCourty was there as well, but McCourty is expecting Gregory to at least force Pitta to him. McCourty wasn’t expecting Gregory to tackle the ground.
On the 38-yarder to Smith in the third quarter, Patrick Chung failed to get back to his proper Cover-2 position in time after cheating up. Four missed tackles in this group. Not good.
Special teams (4 out of 5)
Punter Zoltan Mesko got back on track with a 4.66-second average hang time, but you’d like to see him do much better on his final punt than a 30-yarder to the 21-yard line. The Patriots needed him to pin the Ravens, with only one timeout left. Arrington had a missed tackle on the 38-yard kickoff return.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.