5 takeaways from the Patriots’ 34-10 trouncing at the hand of the Titans

Stephon Gilmore was targeted and toasted.

Patriots Titans Football
Tennessee Titans wide receiver Corey Davis catches a 23-yard touchdown pass as he is defended by New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore. –AP Photo/James Kenney

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from Sunday’s trouncing at the hand of the Titans, when the Patriots looked outclassed and noncompetitive in a 34-10 loss…

Brady beaten by Pees… again

Bill Belichick’s counterpart Sunday was former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, the first time the head coach on the opposite sideline has been one of his ex-players. But it might have been the presence of another of Belichick’s former co-workers that gave his team’s trip to Tennessee a painfully familiar feel.

Vrabel’s defensive coordinator in his first season with the Titans is former Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who spent the eight seasons between his jobs in Foxborough and Nashville as part of the coaching staff in Baltimore.

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Over those years (2010-17), the Ravens repeatedly gave Brady and the Patriots fits in the passing game. Pees’s units faced New England eight times in that span. The quarterback’s passer rating was less than 70 in four of those games, and in another the passing game totaled just 158 yards. In those contests, Brady has thrown 12 touchdown passes, but he’s been intercepted 11 times. For context, consider that overall over those eight seasons Brady’s regular-season passer rating was 101.5, and he threw 263 TDs to only 61 picks.

With the Ravens, Pees found ways to get Brady off his spot with pressure up the middle, and excelled at using his defense to make the quarterback uncomfortable. And he did it again Sunday with the Titans. Brady was sacked three times, but he was hit on at least three other occasions, and a litany of other throws came when he was under the gun or unable to get his footing established before unloading. The quarterback looked confused at times, and as the game went on he appeared to grow increasingly unsure about what he was looking at, or where to go with the ball within the first couple of seconds after the snap.

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As a result, he started the game by completing just eight of his first 18 attempts, and finished 21 of 41 for 254 yards. The Pats went 3-for-15 on third down (20 percent), and generated just one touchdown drive. All 10 points they scored came in the first three series, then after the fourth finished with a missed 52-yard field goal the final six drives led by Brady included four punts, halftime, and a turnover on downs. Those six possessions netted 119 yards, or less than 20 yards apiece.

Brady was yanked midway through the fourth quarter, after the margin grew to 24 points. By then it was clear there was no comeback forthcoming, so Belichick gave Brian Hoyer a chance to handle a few snaps – and conceded the victory to Pees and the group that executed his plan to perfection.

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“Good rush, good coverage. They had a good plan and they did a good job executing it,” Brady said. “You play from behind all day, that’s not very ideal. Just a bad day.”

Too much Josh Gordon

Things didn’t start too badly for Brady, whose first completion came on his first third-down conversion attempt, a long 44-yard hookup with Josh Gordon down the middle of the field.

From there, though, Brady looked for Gordon quite a bit. In fact, maybe a bit too much at this point in the process of their developing on-field relationship.

The quarterback fired in the direction of his shiny, new toy with three of his first four third-down throws. (Only the first was completed.) And it wasn’t just with possession on the line. Brady targeted Gordon with eight of his first 16 throws on the afternoon, and with a total of 12 passes over the course of the entire game.

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However, only four of those were completed, and so Gordon’s 81 receiving yards amounted to an average of less than seven yards per attempt. Take out that first deep connection, and the last 11 tries netted just 37 yards.

Brady wasn’t exactly in sync with anyone Sunday, but with Julian Edelman’s 12 targets the Pats produced nine completions and 104 yards. James White was targeted eight times, but five were completed. Those two are renowned for their ability to further drives, to make crucial catches, and to leave New England’s offense in advantageous situations.

By the inverse of that logic, then, the case could be made that trying to force feed Gordon, and completing only a third of the passes thrown his way, contributed significantly to the Patriots’ inability to find an offensive rhythm or to stay on the field. New England’s attack too often struggled to string plays together, and it’s not difficult to identify eight incompletions to one player as a central cause.

With Rob Gronkowski down again, maybe Brady’s options were limited. But Chris Hogan was targeted just once. Sony Michel was a nonfactor in the passing game. And Cordarelle Patterson was nowhere to be found in the gameplan. Spreading it around might’ve been a better idea than repeatedly leaning on a player who is new to the system, hasn’t played a lot of football in the past five years, may be limited in the routes he can run, and dislocated a finger last week – as much of an athletic freak as he may be.

Gilmore was targeted and toasted

Taking on Malcolm Butler and the Titans, much of the pregame attention was paid to the potential franchise cornerback the Patriots let go. Once the game started, however, Tennessee’s offense turned the focus on the franchise cornerback that the Pats ultimately decided to commit to – and made Stephon Gilmore look pitiful in the process.

The Titans began the day with the NFL’s 30th-ranked passing offense, but they fearlessly went after the best player in New England’s secondary. In the first quarter alone, Gilmore was the victim on a couple of big completions, called for defensive pass interference, then called for another interference penalty that was declined because despite the illegal contact Corey Davis still came down with a touchdown catch. A quarterback who came in averaging 181 yards a game, with a 5:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, finished the opening period with 106 aerial yards and two scores.

Then, late in the second quarter, with Tennessee facing third and 14 and the Patriots getting some pressure on Mariota, the quarterback threw Gilmore’s way again – and connected for a gain of 20. That extended a drive that could’ve been stunted near midfield with about four minutes before the half. Instead, the drive lasted three more minutes and finished with the Titans going all the way to the end zone.

And instead of going to the half down by seven, or maybe tied, the Patriots went to intermission down 24-10.

Davis is a talent. He was a first-round draft pick, and scored twice against the Pats in last year’s Divisional playoff tilt. But part of New England’s plan seemed to be entrusting Gilmore with solo coverage, then letting the rest of the unit handle myriad threats that included Mariota’s legs – and Gilmore wasn’t up to the task.

Meanwhile, Butler was a nonfactor, playing mostly as a nickel back, and hardly targeted by Brady. Sunday certainly shouldn’t be thought of as a referendum on the Pats’ personnel decisions at cornerback – but it was undeniably as brutal at that position as any on the field.

Opening kick return set tone, exposed a weakness

The Patriots seemed to lack energy from the start, with Darius Jennings taking the opening kickoff 58 yards to set the tone of the first half – and also exploiting an area that has been a weakness this season.

Entering Sunday, only five NFL teams had allowed more yards per kick return than had the Patriots at 25.4 yards per return. Kick coverage has been generally deemphasized across the NFL due to rules changes, but this season the Patriots have been among the teams who have tried to initiate returns, and pin opponents deeper than they would be if they were simply moved out to the 25-yard line with a touchback.

Jennings’s return was the 26th against the Pats this season, which was tied for the most in the NFL. Granted, with the league’s fifth-ranked scoring offense, the Patriots do kick off more than most other teams – but on average, teams across the league had covered just 14.7 kicks through Sunday.

Either way, the Patriots had granted their opponents the seventh-best starting position in football, allowing the enemy to open drives beyond their own 30 on average. Based on that, it might be time to abandon the strategy of giving returners the chance to run with the ball – but the more sustainable solution would be to just be better in return coverage.

The weather is getting colder, and as it does it will become more difficult to line up and simply have Stephen Gostkowski boom the ball into the back of the end zone. As the season continues, there will be less and less choice in terms of strategy, and if the Patriots can’t figure a way to get better they’ll continue to leave themselves prone to the types of game-turning returns that got the Titans of to such a good start Sunday.

So, what now?

Their seven-game win streak – and all the momentum that seemed to come with it – might have been snapped, but all is not lost for the Patriots.

They’re still 7-3, and now they get a week to regather themselves without needing to immediately prepare for their next game. The injuries are starting to mount offensively, so a bye week could do well the bodies of Gronkowski and Michel, as well as offensive linemen Shaq Mason (all) and Trent Brown (most), each of whom missed significant portions of Sunday’s game. Edelman left Sunday’s game early with an ankle ailment, as well.

The bye week should also provide a chance for Belichick and his staff to do some self-scouting, the team needing to determine why the defense continues to struggle with mobile quarterbacks (like Mariota), and to find ways to make the club more consistent on both sides of scrimmage as a whole. It would also behoove them to figure out why they’ve now started so slowly on the road four times, and lost three of those games, considering that Kansas City is now 9-1 and so it’s become increasingly unlikely that the AFC playoffs will go through Gillette Stadium.

That said, the rest of the schedule is rather forgiving. When the Pats return, it’s against the lowly Jets, and they play the Jets again in the season finale. There’s another game with the Bills on the slate, too. Between then are tilts with the Vikings, Dolphins, and Steelers, but the game against Minnesota is at home and Miami is fading. The Pittsburgh game should be a challenge, and that could determine who gets a first-round bye, but it’s still more than a month away.

By then, the Pats very well could be – and should be, if Sunday was more of a hiccup than a harbinger – sitting at 10-3.

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