Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 35-30 loss to the Seahawks, another battle between Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll to be decided in the shadows of the goal line…
A TOLERABLE LOSS
In some ways, the Patriots were in a no-pressure situation Sunday night. They were underdogs for the first time in more than four years, and even without fans at Century Link Field, going on the road to face the Seahawks in Seattle is a daunting task for a developing team. The expectations for the Pats have been lowered to the point that a win would’ve been considered an eye-opening surprise.
So to come within a couple yards of getting that victory is, ultimately, a tolerable outcome. New England’s performance on the defensive side of the ball was disappointing, the kicking game remains a concern, and an overly conservative offensive approach might’ve been frustrating at times – but in the end the Pats were competitive. They were tough. They were gutsy.
And that’s encouraging, because that gives Bill Belichick something to build upon, and gives his fanbase reason to believe that even as its transitions to a new era the team will be recognizable while it rebuilds. Had the Pats followed up a win over an underwhelming Dolphins team by traveling West and delivering a stinker, it could’ve cast doubts on some of the optimism that Cam Newton’s fresh legs kicked up in Week 1. It might even have fueled the fears of some that, after a spring of exits and a summer of opt-outs, this season could go south in a hurry if the Pats look like in the early going like a team that’s been swallowed by the circumstances.
Instead, they came out Sunday and continued to look like they had something to prove. They didn’t quit, they played disciplined football, and they fought through their mistakes. They lost, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. Nor was it for lack of skill. They lost because the other side, led by the best player on the field, made a couple more plays.
There’s a good chance that happens a few more times this season. More than maybe we’re accustomed to around here. But Sunday night affirmed that, whichever way those plays go, the Pats may still be as interesting as they’ve been in a while.
THE FINAL PLAY WAS FINE
As the Patriots lined up for the final play, everything was predictable. Yet another Seattle-New England matchup had come down to one last crack from a couple yards out, and anyone who’d been watching this latest classic knew what was about to happen. Right down to the pre-snap motion.
First, tight end Ryan Izzo goes in motion and sets up on the flank. Then, fullback Jakob Johnson moves to alongside Newton in the shotgun set. Once the ball was snapped, there was no secret that the quarterback would try to run it into the end zone.
The Pats could’ve called for some trickery, like they did earlier when Newton faked like he was going to tuck it and instead flicked a floater to a wide open Johnson. Perhaps this time Izzo could’ve leaked. But with the game on the line, the right call was to put the ball in the hands of their most dangerous, physically gifted, experienced offensive weapon and hope he could find a way.
That'll do it ❗️ pic.twitter.com/SQR6ndhmnV
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) September 21, 2020
He couldn’t this time. Newton’s quest for a third touchdown was literally upended about a yard and a half shy of the goal line – but that doesn’t make it the wrong call, or one that Josh McDaniels should regret. Even though everybody knew what was coming, that was the Patriots’ best chance to steal a win.
As some may recall, Pete Carroll paid for overthinking it near the goal line in another of these Seahawks-Patriots clashes. And on a far less consequential scale, McDaniels or Belichick would’ve been making the same mistake had they attempted something that took them away from their strength in that spot.
OPEN UP THE OFFENSE
After the Patriots ran all over the Dolphins, the ground game appeared to be their greatest offensive strength. With Newton orchestrating option plays from the backfield, the results of Week 1 suggested his presence would make things easier for New England’s other backs to have success.
Sunday night, however, the Patriots averaged 2.7 yards per carry – and that was with Newton gaining 47 yards on his 11 jaunts. Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, and J.J. Taylor combined for 14 rush attempts that netted a grand total of 20 yards. Michel was particularly uninspiring as he got the bulk of the work early.
Through three quarters, the Patriots had achieved 14 first downs. Only one of them came courtesy of a running play. Rather, it was the passing game that was more effective against the Seahawks, and perhaps the tremendous production of the Patriots on their final two possessions will shift the approach to be more aggressive moving forward.
Julian Edelman was a nonfactor in the first half, but finished with eight catches for 179 yards, and seems to develop a connection with Newton on routes taking him down the field. Damiere Byrd’s speed seems to at least keep defenders concerned about him going by them on the outside. And even N’Keal Harry made a couple of impactful catches in the fourth quarter, plus another on an early fourth down where he held on despite a hit to his helmet.
Cam Newton Live Postgame Press Conference https://t.co/jVV6lcycIN
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) September 21, 2020
When the Pats needed chunk plays, and quick yards, they were able to produce them against what’s expected to be a playoff team. And they did it with the running game reduced to nothing but Newton. New England went conservative in the first couple quarters, and effectively so. They got it to intermission tied at 14 – but when they were forced to play from behind, they opened it up, and nearly came all the way back.
Here’s hoping that more aggressive approach becomes a more regular part of the game plan going forward.
A DISCOURAGING DEFENSIVE EFFORT
The hallmark of the Patriots defense that carried their successes a season ago was an historic ability to thwart opponents on third down.
Sunday night, however, they struggled to even get the Seahawks into those pivotal positions.
Seattle picked up only three third-down conversions in the contest – but it only faced the predicament six times before their final series, a product of the hosts averaging close to eight yards per play for much of the contest.
When the Patriots’ defense was dictating games and deciding victories a year ago, they yielded a league-low 4.7 yards per play. However, a performance like Sunday’s casts serious doubts on whether this year’s retooled unit can come anywhere close to replicating the level of play the Pats relied upon heavily last year.
Of course, it’s not easy to combat a quarterback like Russell Wilson, whose play over the past 13 months rates second to no one. There’s no shame in losing to a guy like that. Look at the throws he made while getting blasted on each of his first three touchdown passes, in particular. Sometimes you’ve got to tip your cap to greatness.
But the concern coming out of Sunday is that it wasn’t just Wilson who was making the Pats pay. In deference to the dangerousness of the quarterback, the Patriots went with additional defensive backs, though New England’s front couldn’t contain Seattle’s running game. The Seahawks piled up 154 yards on the ground, at a clip of 5.1 per haul.
And it’s not as though going light in the box paid dividends against the pass. Devin McCourty caught a deflection and returned it for a touchdown in the opening minutes, and the Seahawks hurt themselves with three early penalties, but Wilson’s attack still racked up 202 yards on their first 25 plays from scrimmage. Their next drive was extended by a holding penalty on third and 19. And after going to halftime tied at 14, Seattle scored touchdowns on three of its next four possessions.
The Pats came up with a couple of stops late in the fourth quarter to give themselves a chance, and for that they deserve some credit. It just wasn’t enough to override what was, on the whole, a discouraging night for Belichick’s defense.
SEAHAWKS WENT AT THE PATS’ CORNERBACKS
Of particular note with the way the Seahawks attacked the Patriots’ defense was the fearlessness with which Wilson went at Stephon Gilmore and the New England secondary.
Gilmore may be the reigning NFL defensive player of the year, but through two weeks opposing passers haven’t shied away from throwing in his direction. Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Dolphins paid with an early interception in the opener, but the veteran kept throwing toward his former teammate, and Gilmore was ultimately flagged for a couple of pass interference calls.
Sunday night, Wilson connected with receiver D.K. Metcalf for a 54-yard scoring strike that burnt Gilmore despite decent coverage. Later in the game – on the drive that produced what was ultimately the game-winning touchdown – Wilson trusted the Metcalf-Gilmore matchup again, firing to his receiver for a 19-yard gain that brought the ball into New England territory.
📺: Watch live on NBC pic.twitter.com/qHYONpFo5p
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) September 21, 2020
Through two weeks, opposing quarterbacks don’t appear to be deferring to the reputation of Gilmore, or the Pats secondary as a whole. Wilson took a shot on Jason McCourty, another highly regarded corner, and was rewarded with a 38-yard TD to David Moore.
In total, four of Wilson’s five touchdown passes went to receivers, matching the number of scoring receptions the Patriots surrendered all of last season. Further, it was Dec. 1, in Game 12, when the Pats allowed their third touchdown reception of 21 yards or more. They gave up three of those on Sunday alone.
As Wilson’s mystique grows, it’s worth wondering if that of the Patriots’ secondary is beginning to shrivel a bit.
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