Another season, another game, and we’re still talking about the shortcomings in the Patriots’ secondary.
Sure, the Patriots’ 24-23 loss Sunday at CenturyLink Field was a team loss.
The offense couldn’t deliver the knockout punch — again — with two measly field goals on its final eight possessions. There were big missed tackles by Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes up front, and even the special teams had a letdown when Zoltan Mesko’s poor final punt set the stage for a 25-yard return by Leon Washington with 2:38 to play.
But, holy moly, what a terrible performance by the secondary.
They let a plucky popgun rookie quarterback in Russell Wilson — with average weapons — complete 16 of 27 passes for 293 yards and three touchdowns for a sky-high passer rating of 133.7. Wilson averaged 10.8 yards per attempt, which is just ridiculous.
Wilson averaged 6.5 yards per attempt coming into the game, never higher than 8.8. His highest previous passer rating was 112.7. And two weeks ago it was 45.8 against the Rams. Wilson nearly doubled his touchdown total — five coming in — in one game against the Patriots.
The formula for being moderately successful defensively is fairly simple: don’t give up big plays.
It’s the mantra of coach Bill Belichick. The play calls by defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are almost always conservative, specifically to minimize risk for big plays that can swing a game.
Yet the Patriots keep allowing them. And opponents know they are going to give them up if the Patriots don’t develop a consistent pass rush that can’t do more than spark up here or there.
“Definitely,” Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice said. “We studied film and the first thing we said was, ‘We’ll have opportunities to take passes down the field and all we had to do was take advantage of it.’ ”
On seven of the eight drives the Patriots did not allow a play over 20 yards, guess what? They allowed zero points. The lone exception was the pass interference penalty by Patrick Chung that was later erased by a fumble.
The other four drives were littered with explosive plays and they directly resulted in all 24 points.
On the opening drive, there were two big plays: a 29-yard pass to Rice in a soft spot in the zone that was the size of Rhode Island, and a 22-yard catch by tight end Zach Miller. It was a great throw and catch, and linebacker Brandon Spikes had great coverage.
But what would become a consistent theme Sunday — there was no safety help anywhere. Chung should at least make a hit on Miller, but he instead thought the ball was overthrown and had drifted to the sideline to try to catch a ball that never came.
New England dodged a bullet with only a field goal.
On the second drive, cornerback Kyle Arrington was victimized twice by Doug Baldwin, one for 50 yards, and then on a 24-yard touchdown. Again, no safety threatened either play. Arrington was there on the touchdown, but not in position to make a play.
“Should have played it better,” Arrington said.
Baldwin said Arrington was playing to help that wasn’t there.
“It’s the coverage design,” Baldwin said. “He has a safety that’s supposed to be over top and helping him out, that’s why he’s on the outside [leverage] because he has inside help. And then his leverage is sometimes to trail, sometimes to be in front. It’s just the way the play worked. I was able to go up and shield the defender.”
Obviously the Patriots didn’t like Arrington’s play because he was sent to the bench for rookie Alfonso Dennard.
“There really isn’t much to say,” Arrington said. “Have to do better, we’ll be better, and we’re going to work our [butt] off this week and get ready for New York.”
Dennard didn’t think he starred in a reserve role.
“It didn’t go well at all,” Dennard said. “I mean, technique . . . I have a lot of things to work on. I’ve got to watch film to see what I need to work on.”
After six-straight drives of holding the Seahawks scoreless, the big plays picked up again.
There was the 51-yard pass to Golden Tate against McCourty. By this time Sterling Moore (and later Nate Ebner) had replaced the injured Chung. Moore had his choice of defending two vertical routes and chose the crosser, Rice. Wilson went up top and McCourty couldn’t make a play.
The drive ended on a 10-yard touchdown to Braylon Edwards against Dennard, who was called for a questionable pass interference penalty.
“I messed up on my technique as well,” Dennard said. “I think I could have played it better than I did. Should have turned into him instead of turning away from him. That was my mistake.”
Then there was the final blow: the 46-yard touchdown pass to Rice where rookie Tavon Wilson was left spinning like a top.
“It’s Cover 2, simple Cover 2,” Wilson said of the coverage where he and Ebner split the deep part of the field. “I just have to go make the play. They made the play when they needed to make it and I didn’t. He just ran the route and I didn’t do what I was supposed to do and he converted on the play and I didn’t.”
It was a play that perfectly encapsulated the ineptitude in the secondary: the coaching, the personnel, and the execution.
First of all, the defensive play call by Patricia should be questioned.
The Seahawks had first and 10 at the Patriots’ 46 with 1:27 to play. Why were the Patriots playing with their base personnel, including three linebackers, and just four defensive backs? The Seahawks needed to score a touchdown, and running back Marshawn Lynch wasn’t going to score from there. They had to pass, so why not have more coverage players on the field?
Secondly, why did the Patriots fall for the play-action fake? They should be encouraging the Seahawks to run there.
And then there was the execution. Why hasn’t Wilson been coached better to know he should never get beat over the top in that situation?
I actually think the Patriots have good players in the secondary and stand to improve. But there’s reason to doubt they will. Just look at the track record. Why does it seem like players always regress in the Patriots’ secondary?
The list goes on and on: Brandon Meriweather, Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler, Leigh Bodden, Chung, McCourty, and Ras-I Dowling.
Where’s the ascension? Where’s the excellence? OK, how about we settle for a turn of the head and making a play on the ball when the receiver reacts to the ball being in the air?
There is much to be disappointed about with the Patriots, especially in the secondary. Without a Giants-like pass rush, the Patriots are going to have to cover better in the back end to win games.
It’s going to have to start with the coaching. The players are who they are. Belichick, Patricia, cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer, and safeties coach Brian Flores must do a better job.
What we saw on Sunday wasn’t good enough.
And it hasn’t been for a while.
Enough is enough.
“We have to make more plays or it will keep being like this,” McCourty said.
Again, he summed it up perfectly.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.