Unlike their coach, who barely says anything at all, Patriots players continue to say the right thing. From the postgame podium to the locker room stalls, the united front is holding, even in the face of a five-game losing streak.
But after the latest stupefyingly awful offensive performance, a 6-0 loss to the Chargers that dropped the Patriots to 2-10, it’s hard not to wonder whether the fault line is close to rupturing. How much more can the defense do? That’s three straight games in which it has surrendered 10 points or fewer, the first time since 1938 an NFL team did that and didn’t win once.
How much longer can the defense stay quiet about an offense doing comparatively so little? After watching the offense get shut out at home for the second time this season (the first time that’s happened in franchise history), after a desperate starting-quarterback switch proved completely ineffective, after more problems along the offensive line, and a lack of production from the skill positions, it’s obvious that the offense isn’t pulling its weight.
In a season that runs counter to nearly every hallmark of a Belichick-coached team, it is that glaring imbalance, that shocking absence of complementary football, that might be the most un-Belichickian trait of them all.
While Sunday’s dismal effort had a legitimate built-in excuse with an apparently serious injury to Rhamondre Stevenson, the offense can’t in good conscience use that argument in its defense. Not with a defense that continues to perform each week despite being without Matthew Judon and Christian Gonzalez, only its two best players.
Yet with the exception of Jabrill Peppers’s unfortunate hot-mike moment of honesty at the end of the loss to the Giants — when he said what anybody watching the Patriots already knew (that they are bad, only he said a bit more colorfully) — there hasn’t been any finger-pointing from one unit to the other, or any public airing of frustration beyond the Belichick-approved “I can play better.”
This despite the glaring reality that with one decent offensive drive in any of the last three games — Sunday’s 6-0 loss, the 10-7 loss to the Giants, and the 10-6 loss to the Colts in Germany — the Patriots could have won. That reality left Bailey Zappe, who started Sunday’s game after appearing in relief of Mac Jones in the previous two, in full apology mode.
“Our defense is playing phenomenal,” he said. “Like I’ve said multiple times, it starts with me as a quarterback on the offensive side. I’ve got to do better. I’ve got to get us down there. I’ve got to get us in an opportunity to score points. Taking sacks and doing all those things isn’t doing a good job of doing that.
“I’ve got to throw it better. I’ve got to make smarter decisions. Once I start doing that, then we’ll start scoring points.”
He was far from alone in mea culpa mode:
JuJu Smith-Schuster: “Honestly, I give it up to our defense. Regardless of how it’s been going for us on offense, they’ve been doing their job, doing their thing, and they stopped a high-powered offense like the Chargers and only gave up 6 points.”
Ezekiel Elliott: “Defense holds them to 6 points, and for us not to be able to go out there and put anything on the board is tough. I feel bad for those guys on the defensive ball, they’ve been playing good defense week after week. We’ve got to figure out how to make more plays on offense and give them some help.”
David Andrews: “It’s a very simple game. You’ve got to score points to have a chance to win. We’ve just got to find a way to generate points.”
So far, no one on defense is asking for such apologies. Linebacker Jahlani Tavai even turned it around on his own unit, saying it just has to do more.
“Is it good enough? I believe so. But it’s not our standard,” he said. “Our standard on defense is high. We strive for perfection. Every week, we’re at each other’s throats because we’re trying to make sure that we’re dialed in, focused, and prepared to execute any type of play or any type of situation.
“If we’re looking for perfection, we don’t want to see a score on the board. I know we held their offense to no touchdowns, but we don’t even want them to score field goals. That’s the mentality we have as a defense; we take it personally when they get past our 50.
“Those are the type of guys that I love playing with. I’m proud of each and every guy that got to run out on the field and do their job.”
That the Patriots have to do these jobs five more times this season feels interminable, with the offense getting worse by the week. No matter how stingy the defense gets, it’s deflating to fall behind by a field goal and feel as if a game is out of reach.
But, by the promise of Peppers, the defense will continue to play hard.
“We are going to stay together,” he insisted. “We have high-character guys, we are no stranger to adversity. Everyone here has faced tough times in their life. This is not nothing, but we are all competitive and we are powerful men. What we are putting forth right now just is not it.”
Peppers and his defense deserve credit for their good play this season. They might deserve even more for their great restraint.