Sports

Patriots defense was indeed bad, but will likely rebound

Alfonzo Dennard and his teammates on defense took a few smacks in the chops from Stevie Johnson and the Bills.
Alfonzo Dennard and his teammates on defense took a few smacks in the chops from Stevie Johnson and the Bills.Credit: jim davis/globe staff

Many times, the film doesn’t match up with what seemed like a poor performance on the field.

Once you take emotion out of it and look at the entire game, things tend not to be as bad as they appeared.

For the Patriots defense, Sunday’s 37-31 victory over the Bills was not one of those games.

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A review of the coaches’ film shows that the Patriots were every bit as bad as their performance seemed to indicate (481 yards and 35 first downs allowed).

The defense was, in a word, atrocious. It had to be among the worst performances by a Bill Belichick defense in his tenure with the Patriots.

In an effort to quantify how bad this was, we went through our data, which goes back to the start of the 2011 season in this regard.

What we do, in an effort to gain a rough idea of how a unit or player performs in a game, is use something along the lines of a plus/minus system. Positive plays, be they impact plays like sacks or hurries, or just successfully getting off a tough block to make a tackle, are tabulated. In the same way, players that don’t perform their perceived duty are tabulated in the negative column for a missed tackle, blown gap assignment, penalty, poor coverage, etc.

It’s far from a perfect system, but if every game is graded in the same manner, then over the course of a season a roughly accurate picture emerges.

Out of the Bills’ 81 offensive plays (including penalties), the Patriots had a positive performance on just 55.6 percent of the snaps. That’s their lowest dating back to the start of last season, edging out the loss to the Giants during the 2011 regular season (56.9 percent).

The previous worst performance this season was 64.9 percent in the loss at Baltimore. Every other game was at least 70 percent, and the seasonal average entering the Bills game was 73.9 percent. The high was 80.6 percent in the loss to the Cardinals.

What that points to is that Sunday’s performance was an aberration— that the Patriots are not nearly as bad as what they showed. That is not meant to excuse the performance. Far from it. The defense — the coaches and the players — should be embarrassed.

What you saw was a woefully unprepared team coming off a bye week against a divisional opponent. That is inexcusable.

Give a good portion of the blame to the players, who failed to perform the fundamental duties of the defense, things they had no problem doing before Sunday.

They were the ones who missed a season-high 15 tackles (on 10 plays), which gave the Bills another 70 yards of offense. They were the ones who at times totally disregarded their gap and edge responsibilities against the run, and in pass coverage were often more concerned with what was happening in the backfield instead of on the routes developing in the acreage behind them. They alone are responsible for the undisciplined penalties that gave the Bills free yardage and moved the chains.

But the coaches must also share in the blame. The coverage players looked lost trying to sort out some of the bunch concepts the Bills used through the air. The Bills did absolutely nothing new. The Patriots obviously weren’t drilled properly.

There was a plethora of communication mistakes that showed a lack of preparation. And the Patriots coaches apparently didn’t have much up their sleeve, either, because there were hardly any adjustments made. No extra pressures dialed up (five blitzes total, or 10.2 percent), and the same vanilla coverages (mostly Cover 3 with a safety and two cornerbacks playing over the top) for much of the game.

However, if recent history is any judge, there is reason to believe the Patriots will right the ship.

After bottoming out against the Giants last season, they tightened things up and put together three of their best defensive games of the season against the Jets (81.7 percent), Chiefs (88.2) and Eagles (80). And in the playoffs, the Patriots played their best defensive ball against the Broncos (87.1), Ravens (87.1), and Giants (83.8).

Yes, the Patriots were bad against the Bills. But that doesn’t mean that’s who they are.

On to the positional ratings against the Bills:

Quarterback (rating: 4 out of 5)

Probably the area in which Tom Brady stood out the most was dealing with the pressure, which accumulated in the second half (15 total pressures in 43 dropbacks). Outside of that, it was one of those games where the degree of difficulty was low against a porous defense. The Bills aren’t very exotic, so Brady easily picked out the weak points. Only error was the final incomplete pass to Danny Woodhead in the end zone. It was there, Brady just missed it. And Woodhead did not go out of bounds — Brandon Lloyd did — so the touchdown would have counted.

Running backs (4 out of 5)

Woodhead was sensational again, and Stevan Ridley was very good outside of his false start penalty. Nice job by Shane Vereen showing some toughness by breaking two tackles on a screen before halftime. He hasn’t shown a lot of that. The coaches looked excited to see it. Dan Connolly was cheap-shotted from behind on the play by Kyle Moore. Early in the third quarter, Vereen was dropped for no gain when he hesitated as the back-side pursuit got him.

Offensive line (2.5 out of 5)

Connolly (46 percent of snaps) and Logan Mankins (62 percent) left with injuries, but Brady was pressured on 34.9 percent of his dropbacks, and there were six run stuffs allowed — that’s a lot, no matter the personnel. In order of performance: Sebastian Vollmer (1.5 hurries), Ryan Wendell (half-sack, hurry), Connolly and Mankins, Donald Thomas (2.5 pressures), Nick McDonald (two hurries, stuff), Nate Solder (5.5 pressures). On the final play of the first drive (drop by Deion Branch), Vollmer blocked two guys. The 15-yard untouched touchdown run by Woodhead is one of those that should be hung on the wall in the line’s meeting room. Mankins and Wendell doubled the nose tackle, Wendell turned him, Mankins took out the linebacker, Vollmer the end, and Wes Welker took care of the nickel.

Receivers (3.5 out of 5)

Three drops (two by Welker) and some shoddy run blocking by Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui marred an otherwise solid outing. Somebody needs to explain why Hoomanawanui (three negative run blocks in nine snaps) is playing more than Daniel Fells (three snaps), who wasn’t on the injury report. Just an outstanding diving touchdown grab by Gronkowski before halftime. Brady was so mad at Julian Edelman on the third-down sack early in the third quarter because Brady likely wanted Edelman to run a bubble screen against off coverage. That’s usually a non-verbal thing in his offense, which a guy like Welker would get. Costly mistake. Knocked them out of field goal range.

Defensive line (1.5 out of 5)

Every player had his share of very good plays, considering this group had eight of the defense’s 11 quarterback pressures. But there was a season’s worth of fundamental breakdowns that overshadowed it all from two of the more unlikely players: Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones. Ninkovich had 2.5 pressures but also had two of the following: missed tackles, blown gaps, failed edge sets, and inadequate pass coverage. He probably hasn’t struggled that much since the Steelers game last season. And Jones had his first “rookie game.” His 3.6 pressure percentage was his lowest of the season and he blew two gaps and edges. Normally he’s terrific at that. Jones jumped into Jerod Mayo’s gap on C.J. Spiller’s 12-yard run in the second quarter, and that completely opened the left side. Jermaine Cunningham had 2.5 pressures to give him 6.5 in the past two games. He had three total in the first seven games. But he also had a missed tackle, a blown gap, and a penalty.

Linebackers (1.5 out of 5)

If it weren’t for Brandon Spikes, who had a knockdown, forced fumble, pass breakup, and two standout run tackles, this group would have been a total disaster. And Spikes was far from sterling with a missed tackle, some shoddy pass coverage, and a personal foul penalty. Between Mayo and Dont’a Hightower, we saw one standout play between them (hurry by Mayo). Mayo had two missed tackles, a few subpar coverages, and a personal foul penalty of his own. On Scott Chandler’s 23-yard reception in the second quarter, Hightower had a poor reroute and Mayo had cheated up against the run, making it an easy throw. On the next play, a 17-yarder to Chandler, Hightower had another weak reroute and was burned for 17 yards. Not sure what Hightower was doing in coverage for much of the game. On the 19-yard pass to Stevie Johnson in the third quarter, he likely should have dropped much deeper. A more experienced safety might have jumped the route when Johnson crossed the field, but Devin McCourty, through no fault of his own, obviously lacks that feel.

Secondary (1 out of 5)

Every time the Patriots play Buffalo, the secondary is terrible, especially the safeties. There were eight missed tackles, with four coming from Steve Gregory. Alfonzo Dennard (20-yard pass, touchdown, blown edge against the run) and McCourty added two each. McCourty did show up with two huge turnovers: the forced fumble at the 1, and the game-saving interception that was thrown right to him. The coverage sack (4.59 seconds) to end the Bills’ first drive of the second quarter was caused by McCourty jumping the crossing route by Johnson. If McCourty stayed with the vertical clearout route, Johnson would have scored a touchdown. There was no one else in the middle of the field. Great play by him. On Chandler’s touchdown before halftime, there was definitely a blown assignment, and if I had to guess, it would be on Gregory. Both he and Hightower followed the fullback out of the backfield. Probably didn’t help that Jones let Chandler have a free release. On the fourth-down conversion in the third quarter, Dennard jumped inside despite having help there and Johnson easily abused him for a 13-yard gain.

Special teams (4 out of 5)

Great kick coverage to limit the Bills’ explosive units (six touchbacks by Stephen Gostkowski). Not really a big special teams game, with four punts and nine total touchbacks.

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