5 takeaways from the Patriots’ first loss of the season

In some ways what happened at Baltimore was a culmination of little flaws that had started to build.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gestures toward an official during the second half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gestures toward an official during the second half. –AP

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Patriots’ first loss — a rattling, 37-20 beating from the Ravens…

DON’T PANIC ABOUT THE DEFENSE, YET

As Nick Boyle barreled over the goal line with the first touchdown of his five-year career on the first play of the fourth quarter Sunday night, his midweek comments came to mind.

“We’ll see how good they are once we play them,” the Ravens tight end told reporters. “I don’t think they’ve seen anyone like our offense or like Lamar.”

It was a memorable statement when he said it. And it shouldn’t be forgotten now, as we evaluate a Patriots defense that for the first time has shown evidence of vulnerability.

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Before going to Baltimore, New England had allowed a total of 27 points in its previous three games and three-plus quarters, and hadn’t yielded more than 14 points in any single contest this season. Boyle’s 5-yard grab gave the Ravens 30, on the way to 37 — but because of the core truth to what Boyle said, there’s no reason for Pats fans to suddenly panic about the state of the defense. At least not yet.

It’s true that the first half of the schedule didn’t present the New England defense much in the way of elite competition. It’s also true that facing Lamar Jackson and the Ravens marked the start of a more challenging stretch that’ll continue after the bye.

However, during that stretch they won’t face another quarterback like Jackson. Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, and Patrick Mahomes can all run. So can Josh Allen, who’s waiting in Week 16. But none of them runs the way Jackson does. And none of their offenses are as reliant on the quarterback’s ability to run as the Ravens’ is.

Bill Belichick basically admitted as much during the week, when asked how his team would prepare for the task of handling Jackson. He suggested there was really no way to simulate him with a scout team, and by game time it appeared his solution was to load up with linemen and linebackers as part of a heavy personnel package.

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Despite that, the Patriots had major problems handling Jackson and the Baltimore ground game early, giving up 17 points, a dozen first downs, and 204 yards of offense by the first minute of the second quarter. From there, the Pats were better. Once they adjusted to the speed and scheme of a team coming off its bye, they were more competitive in the way they combatted Jackson’s brilliance.

The Ravens put things away with a pair of 14-play touchdown drives in the second half, but in between there was enough improvement to suggest that if the teams see each other again New England may have some ideas on how to defend Jackson — and the unique difficulties he presents.

KILLER MISTAKES TO START BOTH HALVES

A significant part of the Patriots’ success over the first half was their excellence at the start of each half, carrying into Sunday the NFL’s widest first-quarter scoring margin, and pairing with it one of the league’s best in the third. But against the Ravens, the Pats undid some of their good work with inexcusable mistakes on the first series of each half. And it cost them 10 points.

In the first half, it was a neutral-zone infraction that appeared to elicit some not-so-neutral language from Bill Belichick. New England had been marched on for much of the opening series, but toughened up with its backs against the goal line and Lawrence Guy blew up a third-and-2 run for a one-yard loss. Stuck at the 6, Baltimore was content to settle for a field-goal try from Justin Tucker — but Shilique Calhoun reacted when the long-snapper lifted his head, and was whistled for a penalty that reset the downs, and gave the Ravens a first and goal they’d turn into a touchdown on the next play.

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By the third quarter the Pats’ offense was cooking, and New England had flipped the momentum. They had the Ravens reeling, and running on fumes, but as he fought for yardage Julian Edelman lost his grip on the football. Marlon Humphrey collected it cleanly, then went 70 uncontested yards to the end zone. Instead of a 17-13 lead under siege, all of a sudden the Ravens had enough breathing room to catch their breath a bit, their lead back to 11.

MOHAMED SANU

The most encouraging aspect of New England’s offensive performance was the play of Mohamed Sanu, the veteran newcomer who marked his second game as a Patriot by making 10 catches on a team-high 14 targets.

One of those grabs made him the 74th player to catch a touchdown pass from Brady, and he looked like a receiver who in a short period of time has already won the trust of his quarterback. The ball went his way in the red zone, on third down, on short routes and on throws down the field. With Gunner Olszewski out, Sanu was also entrusted with duties as a punt returner (though he didn’t actually field any kicks on Sunday).

Since the Pats sent the Falcons a second-round pick for Sanu, the wisdom of paying such a steep price has been questioned. The questions have been amplified by what Emmanuel Sanders, the other sought-after receiver traded last month, has done in a successful start to his tenure with the 49ers.

But the Patriots were aggressive in pursuing Sanu because reportedly he was their preferred target.

And, already, it looks like they were right to project him as a good fit.

PATS SHOULD CONTINUE TO PUSH THE PACE

Both the Ravens and Patriots ran 65 plays on Sunday night — but Baltimore held the ball for 14 minutes and 2 seconds more than New England because the Pats played most of the night without bothering to huddle offensively. And given that playing with such accelerated pace produced some of the better drives they’ve put together all season, Josh McDaniels should consider increasing the tempo more often after the bye.

In years past, the Patriots have effectively used the hurried approach to help cover up for their own deficiencies. By getting quickly back to the line of scrimmage, Brady’s attack limits the opposing defense’s ability to substitute. That allows them to trap the enemy in an undesirable personnel grouping, and can also tire out would-be pass rushers. And with the Pats’ offensive line in such a state of disrepair that they can’t run the ball, and with foes bringing heat at Brady with fearless abandon, New England needs to seize any edge it can create up front.

Sunday night was a good example. Initially, playing fast put some additional pressure on their own defense, but ultimately they had the Ravens weary and they themselves looked as in-rhythm as they have all year.

Maybe the return of left tackle Isaiah Wynn will solidify the line, and perhaps a week off will help McDaniels and the coaches identify where the running game has faltered since September. But through nine weeks the problems plaguing this offense appear to require more than just a week off in order to solve. So trying to control things through tempo might need to return as a fixture of the way the Patriots impose their will.

SLOPPINESS ISN’T SURVIVABLE

The conference is still in the Patriots’ control. But after Sunday they’re just a loss ahead of the Ravens, and Baltimore would own a tiebreaker. They’re also just a loss ahead of the Bills, again, and those upcoming games against the Chiefs and Texans (both 6-3) could become really interesting if the Pats have a hiccup against one of the NFC East contenders they’ll face between now and their Dec. 1 trip to Houston.

Sunday could ultimately be a good thing for the Patriots, particularly in the timing that puts this game film in the queue just as Belichick and his staff sit down to do their self-scouting. Some of what came to roost against the Ravens had peeked out previously, and in some ways what happened at Baltimore was a culmination of little flaws that had started to build.

But the bottom line of this loss is the reminder that the Pats, even at 8-1, aren’t good enough to get away with sloppiness. A couple of Ravens fumbles let New England stick around — and, averaging three per game, the Patriots have been thriving on turnovers all year. It’s different, though, when two takeaways are washed out by two giveaways, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

Add to that killer Edelman fumble the Calhoun penalty in the first quarter, a Jason McCourty illegal hands call that wiped out a third-down stop in the third quarter, and the cost of New England’s seven penalties comes into focus. Four gave the Ravens first downs. Another, on offense, backed the Pats up from inside the 10 before they were forced to settle for a field goal.

Twice the Patriots were goal-to-go and came away with only three points each time. Once partially due to Shaq Mason’s penalty. Once because James White tripped over a teammate before getting to the goal line. The red zone has been an issue all season, but until now the defense has been good enough to cover for it.

It still is, despite what Jackson did to it on Sunday. And the Patriots, despite their first loss, are still the team to beat. But the margin is narrow enough that if turnovers, penalties and missed opportunities become a trend, that outlook could change very quickly.