FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick traded Jamie Collins to the Browns because the linebacker was no longer in the team’s plans, for the short term or long term. Belichick supposedly wanted to shake things up and send a message to the rest of the locker room, if we listen to former Patriots executive Michael Lombardi.
The Patriots certainly sent a message loud and clear in Sunday night’s 31-24 loss to the Seahawks: The defense isn’t very good, Collins or no.
Belichick spent three years assembling a talented young defense that finished in the top 10 in yards and points allowed last year, and was second in the NFL in sacks (49). And he curiously has spent the last 10 months dismantling it.
Collins and Chandler Jones were traded away for future draft picks. Dominique Easley, their first-round pick in 2014, was unceremoniously dumped for nothing. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks was allowed to walk away in free agency and sign with the Bears.
Their replacements are Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Shea McClellin, and Elandon Roberts — players who aren’t nearly as physically talented, but are more cost-effective.
It’s too early to make any definitive statements about the Patriots defense, but it is statistically worse this year across the board. And the first performance post-Collins was ugly. Real ugly.
The numbers don’t lie. The Seahawks’ 31 points were the most the Patriots have allowed all season. Their 420 total yards were the second most. The Seahawks gained 23 first downs and converted 6 of 12 on third down.
Russell Wilson was phenomenal, completing 25 of 37 passes for 348 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 124.6 passer rating. He completed three passes of more than 35 yards. He and his teammates didn’t turn the ball over.
And the Seahawks scored on 7 of 9 real possessions (excluding kneel-downs), with three touchdowns and four field goals.
Yeah, the Patriots entered the game No. 2 in the league in points allowed. They’ve also played bad offenses and bad quarterbacks, the likes of Landry Jones, Cody Kessler, Ryan Tannehill, and Tyrod Taylor. Sunday night’s shellacking is what happens when the Patriots actually play a good offense.
This Seahawks offense, by the way, entered the game ranked 23rd in points scored and 26th in total offense. The Patriots made them look like the Greatest Show on Turf.
“Defensively, made some stops in the red area, but certainly missed a lot of opportunities to get off the field on third down,” Belichick said. “Gave up some big plays.”
Trading Collins was a long-term move for the Patriots. They didn’t view him as part of their future, and swung a deal to obtain a draft pick for him in 2017 instead of 2018.
And there’s certainly no guarantee that Collins would have made the difference on Sunday night, unless he could cover Doug Baldwin, who scored all three Seattle touchdowns.
But Patriots fans want — and deserve — another Super Bowl run this year. The defense may not be worse off without Collins, but you definitely can’t make the argument that it is better.
And right now, it looks like the accumulation of its losses has significantly weakened a defense that was supposed to be an area of strength.
The pass rush is nonexistent without Jones. Flowers has finally awoken with four sacks over the last two games, but Long has shown next to nothing in terms of pass-rushing ability, Rob Ninkovich has done little (finally notching his first sack of the season Sunday), and the two nose tackles (Malcom Brown and Alan Branch) have not replaced Easley’s and Hicks’s interior pass-rushing productivity. The linebackers also can’t get to the quarterback like Collins used to.
The Patriots aren’t blitzing or trying to bring any exotic pressure, which is fine if you have good pass rushers up front who can win 1-on-1 battles. The Patriots don’t. They have 16 sacks through nine games, on pace for 28 (down from 49 last year).
Wilson had all day to buy time to throw and find his receivers. On Baldwin’s touchdown at the end of the second quarter, the Patriots rushed only two defenders, yet Baldwin still slipped wide open after Wilson showed good patience.
“Just didn’t play it well, obviously,” Belichick said. “I think it goes without saying.”
The pass coverage looks poor, but that’s because the Patriots can’t get any pressure on the quarterback. It’s really tough to cover receivers for five or more seconds in the NFL, and the Patriots’ cornerbacks have to do it every week.
The Patriots aren’t causing turnovers, with nine in nine games (and only one over their last four). But it’s harder to cause turnovers when you’re not getting a hand in the quarterback’s face, or tipping his passes at the line of scrimmage, or hitting him while he’s throwing.
And, yes, you can make the argument that the defense really did miss Collins against the Seahawks. McClellin took the first crack at covering the running back out of the backfield, as was Collins’s main responsibility. McClellin was late getting over to C.J. Prosise, slipped, and allowed an 18-yard catch in the first quarter.
Then it was Roberts’s turn. Roberts, who played the majority of Collins’s snaps, allowed Prosise to get behind him in the fourth quarter and come down with a 38-yard catch. Roberts’s stat line — one solo tackle, three assists, and one quarterback hit.
Collins had his poor moments in coverage, as well, but at least he had the potential to make impact plays. The Patriots’ current defense has a lot of grinders and guys with good work ethic, but is short on playmakers.
They used to have them, with Collins, Jones, Easley, and Hicks. But Belichick decided to get rid of them, and the result is a toothless, uninspiring defense that has a long way to go to be considered Super Bowl caliber.