By now, the decision-making in the closing moments of the Patriots’ 31-24 loss to the Seahawks has been beaten to a pulp, a dead horse that surely has a week’s worth of thrashing left to endure.
Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels could have run the ball on fourth down at the 1, or opted for a higher-percentage play than a fade route to Rob Gronkowski. But the first line in the game’s postmortem comes from the other side of the ball, which, as it turns out, was influencing the offense in those final seconds.
On first and goal with 43 seconds remaining, the Patriots went with a quarterback keeper in order to advance the ball but not, as Brady said after the game, to score. It could be simplistic to say the Patriots didn’t trust their defense to stop Seattle from getting into field goal range in less time than it takes to fry an egg, but the Patriots had four chances to score and chose to use one of them to burn the clock.
Given the way their defense had played, it’s hard to blame them. Earlier in the season, the Patriots didn’t allow a lot of points but also didn’t play many good quarterbacks. It played a good one Sunday, and gave up 31 points. The Patriots are now in the lower half of the NFL, ranked No. 18 in total defense.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia wouldn’t offer any wholesale evaluation of his unit on a Tuesday morning conference call with reporters, shying away from saying big changes were needed.
“You’re always going to look at stuff that works well or doesn’t work well and try to put the stuff that you’re doing well out on the field,” Patricia said. “But for us, a lot of that changes week in and week out, so there might be something we run one particular week that isn’t really applicable to the next team because of the changes in offenses that we see week in and week out.”
One of the Patriots’ weaknesses has come in the form of forcing turnovers. They are tied for 13th in the NFL in turnover margin at plus-1. They are in the black only because their quarterbacks have done a fantastic job of not throwing interceptions and because they’ve been lucky enough to lose only seven of 18 fumbles. The Patriots rank 26th in total takeaways with nine.
Patricia said those paltry figures were not the product of scheme, but of playmaking.
“I don’t know if I’d really go with the scheme part of it as much as just, you know, there are definitely opportunities in the game where those turnover opportunities come up, whether the ball is out, in the air, or whatever the particular case may be,” he said. “We just have to make sure we come up with those opportunities.
“I think you’ve got to give credit to certainly the teams we’ve played. I don’t think you can go as many years in a row as we’ve gone with high turnover numbers and [not] have an opponent look at you and say, ‘We’ve got to do a really good job of protecting the ball.’ ”
The Seahawks, like the Patriots, put a premium on ball security, so Patricia’s words are likely true. Still, losing the turnover battle because the other team really, really wanted to win it is unlikely to be a satisfactory answer for fans or coaches, particularly when the Patriots often sent only three rushers against an offensive line that has been the Seahawks’ worst unit.
Defensive end Trey Flowers had two sacks, but the pass rush otherwise didn’t force Russell Wilson into errant throws that could have been picked off. Wilson had time to throw and delivered long passes with pinpoint accuracy. Defensive backs got lost on some big plays but, often, Wilson’s throws were so spot-on that it wouldn’t have mattered.
Including a 20-yard pass interference call on Justin Coleman, Wilson was 6 for 8 throwing deep balls, and the Patriots allowed 10 plays of 15 or more yards.
Five of those big plays — including the 38-yard completion to C.J. Prosise that left Elandon Roberts (the replacement for Jamie Collins) in the dust and brought the Seahawks to the 2-yard line — came on third downs, where the Seahawks went 6 for 12 overall.
And even though Flowers played well, his playing time came at the expense of Jabaal Sheard, who played a season-low 16 snaps. If Sheard has fallen out of favor because of poor play, it’s a bad sign for a front seven that just said goodbye to Collins, though Bill Belichick would not say that was the reason.
“To a point, play time is based on performance, but it’s also affected by situations and the type of game and type of matchups that particular game, that are particular to the characteristics of that game,” Belichick said.
Patricia also said that matchups had determined the Patriots’ choices in the second cornerback spot opposite Malcolm Butler, and bristled at the idea that the position is unsettled.
Eric Rowe had started the previous two games over Logan Ryan but was a healthy scratch Sunday night. Coleman served as the slot corner and Cyrus Jones played on special teams while Patricia often utilized three safeties in Duron Harmon, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung.
“I think the truth is that we’re always trying to put the best people out there that give us a chance to be successful on that particular play,” said Patricia. “A lot of the times, it’s going to be dictated by the offense, because we’re on the defensive side of the ball so we react to what they do.”
While that much is true within games, the Patriots defense is now below average, and, eventually, they’ll have to react to that, too.