The Patriots had one of their worst defensive performances of the season in Sunday's 31-24 loss to the Seahawks. Coincidentally (or maybe not), it came in their first game following the Jamie Collins trade.
After breaking down the All-22 film Tuesday, we identified several reasons for the Patriots' poor performance:
1. Zero pass rush — This, in our estimation, was by far the biggest issue with the defense. Russell Wilson had clean pockets and a ton of time to throw, and made the Patriots pay. Some of it was by design, with the Patriots rushing three and even two defenders to try to keep Wilson contained and flood the coverage lanes.
It didn't work. Against a three-man rush, Wilson was 5 for 6 for 96 yards and Doug Baldwin's 18-yard touchdown right before halftime. On that play, Baldwin was initially covered, and gave up on the play. But he kept flowing across the field, Wilson had all day in the pocket, the Patriots' coverage eventually broke down, and Baldwin slipped behind the defense for an 18-yard touchdown.
Wilson was able to wait for his receivers to work their way open when they were initially covered, like on a 10-yard pass to Baldwin on a comeback.
The Patriots also blitzed six on the opening drive, couldn't get home, and Wilson found Tyler Lockett for a 36-yard gain.
The Patriots' three sacks came on one three-man zone blitz and two regular four-man rushes. But they only hit Wilson five times on 43 dropbacks. Unacceptable.
2. Complicated scheme — The Patriots' defense seemed to have a lot going on Sunday night. They rushed from two to six defenders. They played Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4, and man-to-man. There was lots of presnap shifting and pointing and waving. On some snaps, it appeared as if some defenders were in man and others in zone.
They lost track of Baldwin on his second touchdown. Logan Ryan thought he had safety help on Baldwin's third touchdown. Jimmy Graham got wide open for 19 yards across the formation as either Patrick Chung or Elandon Roberts forgot to cover him. CJ Prosise got open for a 10-yard swing pass in which Roberts forgot to cover for a blitzing Dont'a Hightower.
It just seemed like a little too much for the defense to handle, especially with Roberts, a rookie, playing a significant role (58 of 70 snaps).
3. Run defense was awful — The official numbers look respectable (96 yards on 3.7 yards per carry), but the Seahawks' woeful offensive line created some nice holes for Prosise (66 yards) and Christine Michael (22 yards).
In the second quarter, the Seahawks faced first and 15, yet ran for 10 yards, then 8, then 9 yards on three consecutive plays, with huge lanes to run. Hightower and Roberts each had a difficult time getting off blocks, while Jabaal Sheard got dominated. The Patriots then overplayed the run in the second half, and got hit hard with some play-action passes.
Would Collins have made a difference? Who knows. But the defense didn't improve without him.
4. Couldn't cover the running back on passing plays — This was Collins's specialty, and his replacements struggled, as Prosise caught all seven of his targets for 87 yards.
Shea McClellin had his ankles broken on a zig cut by Prosise for 18 yards. Hightower allowed a 6-yard catch to Prosise to convert a third down. Roberts allowed a 10-yard catch to Prosise for a first down, then got burned for a 38-yarder in the fourth quarter.
5. The Seahawks made plays — Have to give credit to the opponent. Lockett made a real nifty grab over Justin Coleman for 36 yards in the first quarter. So did Prosise, on his 38-yarder over Roberts. Baldwin's first touchdown, a 6-yard catch, was a perfect back-shoulder throw from Wilson and was virtually unstoppable.
The defense should look a lot better the next three weeks when the Patriots play the 49ers, Jets, and Rams, but their inability to rush the passer is very disconcerting.
Other observations after reviewing the tape:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ The offensive game plan was interesting – not necessarily good or bad, but interesting. The Patriots attacked the flats and the middle of the field on the first drive, as you’d expect, and the result was a touchdown drive. But as the game wore on, the Patriots ran a lot of routes down the field, which is not what I expected against this defense.
In the Super Bowl two years ago, the Patriots specifically didn't run vertical routes, instead running crossers, zigs, and pick plays to take advantage of their quickness. This time, the Patriots ran a lot of deep, time-consuming routes, often two or three on the same play – Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan down the sidelines, Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett down the middle.
Tom Brady's interception came on a play with three vertical routes. The initial reads weren't open, Brady scrambled and saw Malcolm Mitchell break free, but it took Brady too long to re-set his feet and fire, and by the time the ball got to Mitchell he was double-covered.
But Brady also hit two deep shots to Edelman on third down, including a third-and-25 conversion, so obviously the Patriots saw something on film to give them the impression that they would hit the deep ball.
■ Brady missed one read that is probably causing him to lose sleep. In the second quarter, Brady stared down Gronkowski as he ran down the right seam, and not only was Gronkowski tightly covered, Earl Thomas read Brady the whole way and crushed Gronkowski with a 100 percent legal hit.
Had Brady opened his periphery, he would have seen Bennett streaking wide open down the left seam, for what could have been a big gain and possibly a touchdown.
Brady came back to Bennett on the very next play and picked up 16 yards. And the Patriots did score a touchdown on that drive, so no harm, no foul.
■ The Seahawks showed how much better they are than the other defenses the Patriots have faced.
Linebacker KJ Wright showed impressive athleticism and intuition throughout the game. The Patriots had a big play set up in the first quarter – Bennett streaking across the middle, and James White in position to make a legal pick after the catch.
But Wright recognized the play, exploded to the ball, and wrapped up Bennett for a short gain before he could reach White's pick. And Wright stuffed a play that Patriots ran times successfully against the Bengals' and Steelers' zone defense – Gronkowski runs a clear-out route up the seam, and White leaks out into the flat for a swing pass and run. The Patriots scored three times against the Bengals on this very play, but Wright snuffed it out for a 3-yard gain.
It was no surprise that two of the Patriots' three touchdowns came on 1-yard runs from LeGarrette Blount. The Seahawks made the Patriots gain every inch of that field.
■ What an awesome game for Bennett, catching all seven of his targets for 102 yards. He showed tremendous athleticism on a jump-ball back-shoulder catch, he beat Wright on a crosser and then broke two tackles on a 26-yard gain, and had a great 14-yard catch and run to set up the second touchdown. That play was a thing of beauty – a play-action throwback, with the linemen and Blount doing a great job of selling the run, and Bennett running across the formation completely uncovered.
■ The offensive line held up pretty well, although the Seahawks only blitzed three times all game. Nate Solder had an up-and-down day, allowing a pressure, a run stuff, and a sack that was an incredible display by Frank Clark, who overran Brady but reached back with his left hand and draged Brady to the ground. Shaq Mason got pulverized by Jarran Reed for a sack, and Marcus Cannon allowed a pressure and a QB hit to Kam Chancellor, though Cannon did pretty well against Cliff Avril for most of the day.
■ The Seahawks were also consistently stacking eight and nine in the box, but the Patriots stuck with their run game, and eventually started to hit some nice stretch runs in the second and third quarter. They had two straight runs to the left side for 23 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter, with some nice seal blocks from James Develin.
■ On the final, ill-fated goal line possession, Blount missed the hole created by Solder and Joe Thuney. He chose to jump over the pile instead.
Didn't have an issue with the Brady sneak on first down or the Blount run on second down. The Patriots had to run off some clock to make sure the Seahawks didn't have enough time to score. But on third and fourth down, the Patriots got too cute, with another Brady sneak and then the lob to Gronkowski. Just give the ball to Blount twice and let him ram it home.
■ Uncharacteristically poor execution from the Patriots in the fourth quarter. Their first drive sputtered out at the 9 and they settled for a short field goal. Their second drive started at the Seattle 43, but Edelman fumbled it away two plays later. And their third drive ended with an inability to punch the ball in from the 1.
When the Seahawks had the ball
■ The Patriots had a lot of trouble winning 1-on-1 battles up front, but not Trey Flowers. The second-year player beat left tackle George Fant cleanly around the edge for one sack, then powered through left guard Mark Glowinski for his second sack. Flowers also made a great play in the run game to set the edge and cut down a potential touchdown run for Prosise into no gain.
■ The Patriots’ other sack was the result of deception.
They showed a five-man blitz but only rushed three. Right tackle George Gilliam stood around blocking nobody while Rob Ninkovich came around the edge, plowed through Prosise, and brought down Wilson.
■ Wilson against zone coverage: 11 of 16, 132 yards, TD, five first downs, a defensive pass interference, and a sack. Wilson against man coverage: 14 of 21, 216 yards, two TDs, 13 first downs, two sacks, a pass interference, and an intentional grounding.
The Patriots' zone kept Wilson contained somewhat — he only had three runs for 6 yards — but he did a great job of buying time behind the line of scrimmage and finding his receivers.
■ Another awesome game from Malcolm Butler. In man coverage, he allowed only three catches on four targets to Baldwin for 22 yards, one first down, and one touchdown. But Butler was also the Patriots’ best run defender Sunday, making four excellent open-field tackles, plus another stop on a swing pass for 0 yards.
■ Weird to see Sheard barely play, and Bill Belichick’s run-around on the questions Tuesday makes me wonder if this was some sort of bye week discipline. Sheard sat out the entire first quarter and only played 16 snaps thereafter. He had entered the game playing 70 percent of the snaps this season, and no fewer than 35 in a game.
■ Ryan was better than I expected, but still wasn’t great. He allowed only one catch in five targets to Jermaine Kearse while making three stops on third down. But he allowed a 12-yarder to Lockett for a first down and Baldwin’s final touchdown. Coleman only allowed that 36-yard catch to Lockett, but also was busted 20 yards for pass interference.
■ Not only did Roberts seem a step slow in recognizing plays, but his size was a big disadvantage. At 5 feet 11 inches and 235 pounds, he was giving up about 6 inches and 80-100 pounds to the Seattle offensive linemen, and he really struggled to get off his blocks. Center Justin Britt destroyed him a couple of times, and Roberts either picked the wrong gap or whiffed on the tackle a few other times.
■ McClellin replaced Collins in the middle of the field goal block unit, and to his credit, he did block an extra point in the second quarter.
■ Cyrus Jones showed some incredible moves on his 43-yard kickoff return, but he continues to hurt his stock with negative plays. This time it was a fumble at the end of the 43-yarder. Thankfully, Nate Ebner saved the day.