Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 26-10 drubbing in Detroit, where they were dominated by Matt Patricia and the Lions:
A thorough beating
When the Patriots have been beaten in recent seasons, it’s typically been in a tight game — or at least been close enough that defeat can be traced back to a turning point, a decision, a busted coverage, or perhaps a missed connection.
Rarely have there been beatdowns as thorough as the one the Patriots received on Sunday night.
Sure, they were briefly within three points early in the third quarter, after an interception and a short field translated to their only touchdown of the night. But those six minutes and 18 seconds of hope were the distinct aberration in a contest that Detroit dominated as one-sidedly as the numbers suggest.
In considering those numbers, know that the Patriots picked up 52 yards and three first downs while running out the clock in the final couple of minutes. Still, the Lions finished with 25 first downs to the Patriots’ 12. The Lions converted seven of 14 third-down tries, the Patriots just two of nine. As a result, the Lions held the ball for 39:15, compared to the Patriots’ 20:45.
The Lions gained 414 yards from scrimmage, the Patriots just 209. Of that, the Lions accumulated 255 passing yards versus the Patriots’ 120. A Lions team that hadn’t featured a 100-yard rusher since 2013 racked up 159 yards on the ground, compared to the Patriots’ 89. (The gap was 159-57 before the Pats’ final possession.)
Before those garbage-time yards, New England’s offense was averaging just 3.7 yards per offensive play, and Tom Brady wore the frustration of that futility both in his expressions on the sideline and in his desperation between the whistles. The quarterback finished 14 of 26 for 133 yards, with a touchdown in the third quarter, then an interception in the fourth quarter that came when Brady appeared to be out of answers and aired out a heave in the direction of Phillip Dorsett deep down the field. Thrown into double-coverage, and hung up, it never had a chance. There was also another where Brady threw it to the same area without even needing a receiver to be there, and was flagged for intentional grounding.
Maybe most disturbing was that Detroit didn’t appear to do anything tricky, or gimmicky. It didn’t make any miracle plays, introduce any exotic formations, or even play all that perfect of a game. Nope. The Lions just lined up, executed, and were met with little resistance by the Patriots on either side of scrimmage.
Patricia had probably envisioned his first win as a head coach for a long time. But given his own experiences in Foxborough, even in his dreams, he couldn’t realistically have envisioned it coming in such a convincing and thorough fashion.
Where are the defensive playmakers?
Through two weeks, the Patriots were the NFL’s fourth-weakest defense on third down. They were fifth-worst league-wide with just three sacks. They had struggled to create pressure and get off the field.
Then, Sunday night, those issues got worse. With Matthew Stafford virtually untouched and dropped only once all night, the Lions converted 50 percent of their third-down tries, including three straight on the backbreaking drive that reinstituted Detroit’s 10-point lead in the third quarter. The Patriots were pushed around in short-yardage situations, and they were just as vulnerable on third-and-long, with the Lions gaining at least 16 yards on three separate plays where they needed at least six yards to move the sticks.
There was no aggressiveness to what the Patriots did, a disappointing lack of push up front, and continued failure against the run. New England entered allowing 4.7 yards per rush attempt, ranked 25th in the league, then gave up 4.8 per haul in Motown. There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of playmakers surrounding Brady offensively, but defensively, the Patriots appear to have the same issue.
Dont’a Hightower has looked slow through three games; his lack of speed exploited for all to see when Kerryon Johnson way-too-easily beat Hightower to the corner. Then there’s cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was burnt for a touchdown by the speedier Marvin Jones. After a strong close to 2017, Gilmore was expected to be an anchor of the defense, though opponents don’t appear hesitant to throw at him — and twice in two weeks it paid off with six points.
Add Adrian Clayborn, Malcolm Brown, Danny Shelton, and Devin McCourty to the list, too. The Patriots have some names on the defensive side. But so far it hasn’t been clear whether or not they have any playmakers.
Terrible starts have become a trend
The Patriots have long prided themselves on preparation and execution, but — as was the case in both the AFC championship and Super Bowl LII — those hallmarks have been painfully absent for New England early in games thus far this season. And that continues to force the Pats to play from difficult positions.
Sunday night, the Lions picked up the initial 13 first downs of the game — eight of which came during a first quarter when they outgained the Patriots by a margin of 126-5. Last week in Jacksonville, the Pats were outgained 145-67 in the opening period, when the Jaguars had 10 first downs to the Patriots’ three. Including the opener, the Pats have been outgained 313-162 in the first quarter, with a 20-8 deficit in first downs.
Across the three games, New England has had 11 drives that started in the first quarter. Eight of them have picked up 24 yards or less. Six have ended in punts, another in an interception, and another in a missed field goal. The only points the Patriots have scored in the first quarter came after a fumble recovery set them up at the Texans’ 19-yard line, and they punched it in three plays later.
It’s not just the offense, or the defense, or the special teams. It’s all three phases, in all different ways, and an indictment on players and coaches up and down the roster. For whatever reason, the Pats have consistently appeared underprepared and struggled to execute early — and far too often — this season.
Inactives tell a story
Most noteworthy among the Patriots’ inactive players for Sunday’s tilt was receiver Josh Gordon, though the entire list served as a reminder that passing judgments on New England based on Sunday night might be a mostly futile exercise. The personnel that stepped onto Ford Field isn’t representative of the one the Pats expect to have at their disposal deeper into the season.
Gordon, uber-talented but undependable, is part of that. Also missing from the offensive side was Julian Edelman, who’s down to one game left on a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. The pair could wind up joining Rob Gronkowski as Brady’s three most dangerous weapons as December turns into January. Rex Burkhead, another favorite of the quarterback, left early Sunday with a neck injury.
On the defensive side, the decimation was arguably even greater. The Pats were without Trey Flowers and Patrick Chung — both absent because of concussions. On top of that, they were without cornerback Eric Rowe, who has assumed the starting role vacated by Malcolm Butler. That meant JC Jackson and Jason McCourty were both employed in significant roles in the defensive secondary — roughly three weeks after making news by merely surviving roster cutdowns when the squad was trimmed to 53.
Health can never be assumed in the NFL, and there’s no assurance the Patriots will have all of those players on the field together at any point, let alone they’ll be there and clicking when the games matter most. But if the 46 players in uniform Sunday are the same 46 dressed at those later dates, the Patriots may not win much of anything.
A key stretch is upon them
The Patriots aren’t desperate. At least not yet. But that moment could be coming sooner than later if they don’t figure things out soon.
After a pair of poor performances on the road, the Pats return for three straight at Gillette Stadium, and it’s a homestand that could carry season-long ramifications. It begins with next Sunday’s game against the 3-0 Dolphins, who now hold a two-game lead atop the AFC East. THen it’s a Thursday night tilt against the Colts, who have Andrew Luck back, and who could carry into a short week the motivation of having been spurned by would-be coach Josh McDaniels. After that come the Chiefs, who have steamrolled opponents in each of their first three weeks — and waxed the Pats at Gillette Stadium a year ago.
If the Patriots can’t get their act together, they could easily lose more ground in the division, and in the conference, and could get to the middle of October already with little margin for error in the AFC. Or, they could make a major statement over the next 21 days, and use this stretch as a springboard. Either way, it looks as though we may learn what this Patriots team really is over the next three weeks.
New England fans are hoping it’s not the team they’ve seen over the first three.