Tackling a runner is as basic as it gets in the sport of football — wrapping your arms around an opponent, driving through his midsection and dragging him to the ground.
After Sunday’s 16-0 loss to Buffalo, the Patriots’ defense needs to go back and take Tackling 101.
When rewatching the game on Monday, we counted 17 missed tackles for the Patriots.
“Tackling was definitely a problem, period. One of many,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game.
There was Patrick Chung letting LeSean McCoy slip right past him for a touchdown in the first quarter. There was Chung and Jamie Collins both whiffing on McCoy on a dump-off pass in the flat, turning a zero-yard gain into 11 yards. Devin McCourty missing Mike Gillislee on a 15-yard run on first and 10. Alan Branch, Dont’a Hightower, and Logan Ryan all missing tackles on a 9-yard run by McCoy. Jabaal Sheard, Collins, and Chris Long letting potential sacks of Tyrod Taylor slip right through their hands.
Overall, we counted three missed tackles each for Chung, Collins, and Malcom Brown, two each for Hightower, Ryan, and Long, and one each for Sheard and Branch.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Patriots miss so many tackles,” CBS analyst Dan Fouts said during the broadcast.
Other observations after rewatching Sunday’s loss:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ What can you really say about the offense? They played with a third-string rookie quarterback with tape on his thumb, and the offense was predictably limited and bland. Jacoby Brissett clearly is not ready to play yet — all that talk in the preseason about how Brissett should start over Jimmy Garoppolo (not from this space) seems pretty ridiculous now — and Josh McDaniels had to call simple, one-read passes that cut off half of the field.
But running the Wildcat with Julian Edelman, and risking him getting hurt? Calling a swing pass to Brandon Bolden on third and 4 that predictably went nowhere? The Patriots had some ugly play calls on Sunday. Bolden also dropped a wheel route that should have been a touchdown, and had three targets in the five snaps he played. If the Patriots are designing plays for Bolden, you know the offense is in trouble.
■ The Patriots were handcuffed with Brissett. The one time they got into the red zone, they went run, run, run before a penalty from David Andrews and a fumble from Brissett wiped out a scoring attempt. And at the end of the game, the Patriots showed little to no urgency to get the ball into the end zone, seemingly content to get out of Gillette Stadium with no more injuries and a 3-1 record.
“Call the play from the line of scrimmage and put this ball in the end zone,” Fouts urged as the Patriots casually walked up to the line of scrimmage in the final minutes. “You can’t be dinking and dunking anymore.”
That said, we were impressed with Brissett’s toughness, playing through a thumb injury on his throwing hand and getting back up after taking several big hits from the Bills. His toughness and leadership will have a longer lasting impression with his team than one poor game early in his rookie season.
■ The one play that seemed to work well was the drag to Martellus Bennett over the middle. Rob Gronkowski ran a vertical route to draw the linebackers, freeing up plenty of space for Bennett to operate over the middle.
And Bennett showed some incredibly nimble moves for a 275-pound tight end, particularly on his 19-yard drag route and the 58-yarder in which he caught the ball over two defenders, then gained another 20 yards with his jukes. Again, that talk in the preseason (not from this space) that Bennett was in trouble of making the team seems even more ridiculous in hindsight. Bennett has been a tremendous asset and a real workhorse so far.
■ Speaking of Gronkowski, the Patriots ramped up his usage from 14 snaps against the Texans to 39 against the Bills. In the first half, Gronkowski was used eight times in run blocking, one time in pass blocking, and twice ran routes (the Patriots only got off 17 snaps in the first half). In the second half, he had seven run blocks, nine pass blocks, and 12 routes (a couple of his routes were fake blocks then leak out to the flat). Gronk was clearly a decoy, catching one pass on two targets for 11 yards as the Patriots work him back from a hamstring injury, but I’m expecting him to be closer to 100 percent for next week when Tom Brady returns.
■ Bills linebacker Preston Brown had an interesting comment after Sunday’s game, saying that the Bills knew that Brissett only likes to throw to his right side (defensive left). That is often the case for young quarterbacks, who naturally face the right side of the field when they turn their body to throw.
So we did the research, and Brown’s comment checks out, somewhat. Brissett’s first five passes all went to the right, and overall he was 8 of 13 for 144 yards to the right side, 7 of 10 for 51 yards to the left, and 1 of 3 for 6 yards down the middle.
■ I couldn’t have been the only one to be a little dismayed that Edelman was caught from behind by a linebacker on his 90-yard catch-and-run that was wiped out by penalty. Is something wrong with Edelman’s foot? Has he lost half a step? Then I looked up Zach Brown’s bio, and he was a Maryland high school state champion in the 100 and 200 meters, and ran the 60 and 200 meters on North Carolina’s track team. So, he’s fast, and in shades of Ben Watson, made a heck of a play to chase down Edelman from behind.
Zach Brown was an animal on Sunday, finishing with 18 total tackles (13 solo), a sack, three tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and two forced fumbles. He also impressively chased down Brissett and James White from behind.
■ Marcus Cannon seemed to have trouble with defensive end Jerry Hughes, who had a sack and a quarterback hit.
And the penalties were brutal — David Andrews’s holding on third and 1, Joe Thuney’s false start on third and 11, and Nate Solder’s chop block to turn a first-and-10 into first-and-25. The line struggled to create holes for LeGarrette Blount (who once again ran really hard), but that’s to be expected when the Bills are selling out to stop the run.
When the Bills had the ball
■ One reason Malcom Brown missed three tackles may have been because he played a career high 62 snaps (83 percent of the game). And Branch played 57 snaps, as the Patriots relied heavily on their “big nickel” package. Operating mostly out of a 3-4 or 3-3-5 defense, The Patriots used a lot of beef up front — Brown, Branch, and Chris Long on the line, with Hightower and Sheard also on the line as outside linebackers — to try to defend the run while also having five defensive backs in the game. It didn’t really work as the Bills averaged 4.2 yards per carry, and Taylor was only sacked twice for minus-2 yards and hit only two other times on 43 passing plays.
■ Why was there no penalty on McCoy’s 7-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, when Hightower was clearly picked by Robert Woods? As long as the contact happens within 1 yard of the line of scrimmage it is legal, and Woods actually picked Hightower 1 yard behind the line of scrimmage.
Hightower played 69 of 76 snaps in his return from a knee injury and had a tough time keeping up with Taylor and tight end Charles Clay, although he had a few nice pass rushes and a QB hit.
Collins also was completely out of position on Gillislee’s 16-yard run out of the Wildcat.
■ The Patriots must have been really concerned with giving up the deep ball, because they were giving massive cushions to the Bills wide receivers. On second and 20, Woods stood by himself at the sticks and caught the ball with a 6-yard cushion in front of McCourty for a 22-yard gain. And Ryan gave Woods a 7-yard cushion at the line of scrimmage, yet Woods was still open by 5 yards on a 23-yard catch in the third quarter.
■ The Patriots played a lot more zone than usual, and it led to communication errors. The Patriots rushed three and dropped eight on a third and 2, yet Justin Coleman forgot to cover the flat, and McCoy was wide open for an easy catch and first-down conversion.
■ Ryan had an interesting game. Woods had six catches for 67 yards against Ryan, catching several slant passes against him, but Ryan was an excellent tackler and great in run support, finishing with a whopping 17 tackles (14 solo). According to Pro Football Reference, it was the most solo tackles by a cornerback since 1999.
■ Cyrus Jones — ugh. He cost the Patriots 27 yards with his two ill-advised kickoff returns (just take a knee!) and also muffed a punt. This is why Belichick prefers using veterans as punt returners — they usually make good decisions. He might have to do the same on kickoff returns.
■ Another solid day for Ryan Allen, booming six punts for an impressive 49.2-yard net average, and only allowing 18 punt return yards to Brandon Tate. Matthew Slater proved once again why he is one of the best punt coverers and all-around special teams players in the NFL with a brilliant solo tackle.
■ And a 48-yarder is no gimme, but Stephen Gostkowski usually makes that kick. He missed two field goals in the preseason and now two in the regular season. He has spoiled us over the years with his consistency, but it might be time to wonder if that extra point in the AFC Championship game is in his head.