The Patriots’ 30-27 overtime loss to the Jets Sunday looked all too familiar. Watching the coaches’ film, it looked eerily similar to their 13-6 loss in Week 5 to the Bengals, who may have provided the rest of the NFL the blueprint to beat the Patriots.
Both the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis and the Jets’ Rex Ryan spoke all week leading up to the game about establishing the run after getting away from it the previous week, and they pounded away at the Patriots for four quarters. The Bengals rushed 39 times for 162 yards, and the Jets rushed 52 times for 177 yards.
Neither team blitzed Tom Brady much — the Bengals on 33 percent of passes, the Jets on 24 percent — but they got consistent pressure with the front four and made life miserable for Brady in the pocket. Against Cincinnati, he was sacked four times and completed 47.4 percent of his passes, and against the Jets he was sacked four times while completing 47.8 percent of passes. He threw a bad interception at the end of the Bengals game, and threw a bad interception against the Jets that was returned for a touchdown. The Patriots were 1 for 12 on third down in both games.
And both opposing quarterbacks were patient and efficient, the Bengals’ Andy Dalton in completing 74 percent of his passes, Geno Smith in carving up the Patriots’ defense for 233 yards mostly on underneath routes.
The Patriots are still 5-2, but they have struggled with the two teams that can run the ball consistently, are patient in the passing game, and have stout defensive lines that can get pressure without having to blitz a whole lot. Those are the ingredients that often win ballgames in the playoffs.
The Patriots may be in the driver’s seat in the AFC East, but right now they don’t look like a team that can win a January slugfest.
A review of the Jets game after watching the coaches tape:
When the Patriots had the ball . . .
■ The big question entering the game was, “How would the Patriots use Rob Gronkowski?” He officially played 49 of 76 snaps, and did most of his work as a slot receiver. Including negated plays, he lined up in the slot 35 times, seven times as a wide receiver, and nine times as a true in-line tight end, mostly in goal-line and short-yardage situations. His 30-yard reception in the first quarter came as an in-line tight end, but otherwise his catches came in the slot or out wide as the Patriots tried to take advantage of his matchup against 6-foot-1-inch Jets safety Antonio Allen.
Gronk answered questions about his left forearm right away on his first catch, when he took a shot from three defenders but showed no effects of injury. He didn’t block much, but he did seal the edge for Brandon Bolden’s first-quarter touchdown run. We wonder, though, if Gronk needs to retrain himself to use his left hand, after spending so much time not using it this offseason. He didn’t bother using his left hand to try to corral Brady’s pass late in the fourth quarter, and ultimately wasn’t able to make a one-handed grab that could’ve been the winning touchdown.
Allen, a seventh-round pick in 2012, had an impressive game against Gronk, allowing only five of 13 passes to be caught as Brady often forced the ball to Gronk in tight coverage. The Patriots strangely threw low-percentage fade passes to Gronk on a couple of third-down plays, which fell incomplete and cost them a couple of drives. But the pass interference call against Gronk on a deep pass to Bolden was bunk — David Harris simply ran into Gronk, but they flagged him for an illegal pick.
■ The Patriots were awful on third down, but they were also terrible on first down. They had bad balance — 22 passes against only 10 runs — and 19 of those 32 plays went for 1 yard or less. Brady completed just 7 of 19 passes on first down and was sacked three times, all in the third quarter, putting the offense in terrible spots. Left tackle Nate Solder, who has played very well this year, allowed two of the sacks (Quinton Coples, Muhammad Wilkerson), bringing his season total up to four. Center Ryan Wendell, who has struggled in pass protection, allowed one by Damon Harrison, while right tackle Sebastian Vollmer allowed the fourth sack when Calvin Pace completely overpowered him in the second quarter.
■ Brady’s accuracy was way off — we counted 11 passes in which he threw out of bounds, too wide, or too high. He completed just 5 of 20 passes over 10 yards, and he has missed several touchdowns this year by not putting enough air under the ball.
On first and 10 with 1:16 left in the fourth quarter, Brady had Aaron Dobson streaking wide open down the sideline, but threw the ball out of bounds for some reason. His pick-six to Allen was also thrown just enough behind Gronk to allow Allen to undercut the route. The CBS cameras showed Brady flexing his right hand on the bench and checking out the knuckle on his middle finger.
When the Jets had the ball . . .
■ The Patriots were determined not to let Smith beat them deep, with Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory, and rookie Duron Harmon playing really deep safety (often 30 or 40 yards off the line of scrimmage) as the Patriots mostly played Cover 1 and Cover 2 man defense. The Patriots actually blitzed more often than usual, bringing extra pressure on 38 percent of the Jets’ passing plays after having averaged 22 percent entering the game.
But the deep coverage left the Patriots vulnerable underneath, and Smith was impressively patient as he chewed up the defense with short slants and drags and button hooks. Receivers Jeremy Kerley (eight catches, 97 yards, one touchdown) and David Nelson (four catches, 80 yards) were impressive and gave Kyle Arrington, Marquice Cole, and Logan Ryan fits all day.
■ Ryan, however, did a nice job of jamming Nelson at the line of scrimmage, disrupting the route, and then undercutting the throw to intercept Smith and return it 79 yards for a touchdown.
■ The defensive line, often featuring youngsters Chris Jones, Marcus Forston, and Joe Vellano, played admirably. Jones was a disruptive force, finishing with 10 tackles (three for loss) and two sacks, including one incredible play in which he barrel-rolled into Smith for a sack. Vellano and Forston held their own, as well — although the Jets did rush for 177 yards, the 3.4 average is pretty impressive for the Patriots, especially given 52 rushes.
■ McCourty is having a Pro Bowl-type season, and continued his impressive play Sunday, finishing with seven tackles (one for loss) and two passes defended. Brandon Spikes had another excellent day stopping the run, and was impressive in shedding the fullback and making plays. Dont’a Hightower had a decent day against the run, but he looked completely lost in pass coverage. There were several plays in which Hightower was in the wrong spot and didn’t know where to go. Tight end Jeff Cumberland abused him on three catches for 41 yards, and it should’ve been more if not for McCourty knocking the ball out of his hands in the end zone at the last minute.
■ Jamie Collins had a fairly egregious block in the back that was flagged. Ryan Allen’s net average of 37.5 on eight punts was a little disappointing, but he did a nice job of catching a low snap in the end zone and getting the punt away. And Julian Edelman (three punt returns for 58 yards) is a marvel at avoiding defenders.
■ Gronkowski: Despite not having his best game, still a very encouraging sign to see him catch eight passes for 114 yards in his first action of the season.
■ Jones: Was having a phenomenal game before costly penalty in overtime.
■ McCourty: Rivaling Aqib Talib for best player on the defense this season.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.