The last time the Patriots played at Gillette Stadium, we all had a good time poking fun at the Steelers’ coaches and their game plan.
Why were James Harrison and Bud Dupree dropping into coverage and not rushing the quarterback? How could the Steelers be so sloppy and unprepared to let Chris Hogan streak wide open down the field for long touchdowns?
Well, now it’s time to point fingers at the Patriots.
Thursday’s 42-27 loss to the Chiefs was about as ugly as it gets. And after reviewing the game on the All-22 coaches’ tape, some aspects of the Patriots’ game plan seem to be head-scratchers.
On offense, the Patriots’ answer to replacing Julian Edelman apparently was, “chuck the ball up and try to make something happen.” Tom Brady threw 10 deep passes (20 or more yards in the air), and completed just two of them. Per Pro Football Focus, Brady attempted just 49 deep passes all of last season.
Late in the fourth quarter, when it was still a one-score game, the Patriots kept running vertical routes, and Brady heaved it down field, hoping for a prayer that was never answered. Whether those were Josh McDaniels’s play calls or Brady’s decisions, it reeked of desperation.
As did some of the playcalling in the first half. That end-around to Chris Hogan worked well the first time, gaining 13 yards. McDaniels then called it twice more in the next eight plays, resulting in gains of 4 and 0 yards. The Chiefs saw it once, then weren’t fooled again. And calling the flea-flicker again? This team watched “Do Your Job, Part 2” too much.
The defensive game plan was just as strange. Remember when the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore to a $65 million contract because of his length, speed and skills as a press-man corner?
And how they paired him with Malcolm Butler to form maybe the best 1-2 cornerback combo in the NFL?
Then why were the Patriots playing zone defense for most of the night?
And why were they playing complicated schemes that required lots of shifting and rotating and perfect communication?
The 75-yard touchdown to Tyreek Hill came against what looked like a Cover 2. The 78-yard touchdown to Kareem Hunt was a disaster, with Eric Rowe rotating back to free safety but paying attention to the wrong receiver and letting Hunt scream past him for as easy touchdown.
And Chris Conley was wide open for a 25-yard gain in the fourth quarter against a Cover 3, even though the Patriots only rushed three.
I’m pretty sure those schemes weren’t drawn up to let receivers streak wide open down the field.
It’s only one game, of course, and Bill Belichick and the Patriots have a long history of fixing their problems over the course of a season. But the Patriots looked sloppy and unprepared for the Chiefs, and were outcoached by Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.
Other observations from the game:
When the Patriots had the ball . . .
■ Our main intrigue when watching this game was how would the Patriots replace Edelman? Here is how many times each player lined up in the slot:
Chris Hogan 38 snaps
Danny Amendola 25
Brandin Cooks 10
Rob Gronkowski 9
Dwayne Allen 3
Phillip Dorsett 3
Amendola had his playing time increase significantly until he left with a head injury, and played almost exclusively from the slot. We don’t have Hogan’s slot stats from last season, but he clearly played more from the slot on Thursday night. In fact, he seemed more like the Edelman replacement than Amendola. Hogan ran that Edelman jet sweep three times (for 17 yards), and caught one quick hitch from the slot that usually goes to Edelman, as well. But he’s not Edelman. Hogan had one measly catch for 8 yards, on five targets. He’s taller than Edelman, but not nearly as quick.
■ Statistically, this was one of Brady’s worst games as a pro. His 44.4 completion percentage (16 of 36 passing) was the fourth-worst of his 18-year career, regular season and playoffs (interestingly, the Patriots won the three worse games). He was out of sorts from the jump, throwing high and wide to a wide open Dwayne Allen running a wheel route on the first play of the game.
Brady made a couple of nice back-shoulder throws to Cooks and Gronk, and had that nice 54-yarder to Cooks, but he didn’t see the field that well and was far too reliant on the deep ball.
■ Cooks was used almost exclusively as an outside receiver, and had a few nice catches, including the 54-yarder and a nice 15-yard catch and run across the middle. We’d like to see him get more of those end-arounds than Hogan, but three catches for 88 yards sounds like something we should come to expect from Cooks.
■ The Chiefs played Cover 1, man-to-man defense for most of the night, and flooded the passing lanes. Rushing only three defenders was their default setting, as they were content to drop eight and let Brady sit in the pocket. Brady was 5 for 13 for 76 yards against a three-man rush, plus a pass interference. Without Edelman and Amendola in the second half, the Patriots’ receivers got absolutely no separation, though they didn’t try many “rub” routes or pick plays that have been so successful for them over the years.
■ Brady didn’t bother targeting Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters, throwing the ball his way just one time. Instead he went after Terrance Mitchell, targeting him a whopping 14 times. Brady completed just three of those passes, but gained 91 yards (including Cooks’ 54-yarder) and also drew four penalties – two defensive holdings, and two pass interferences. Brady targeted Mitchell five times on third down, and converted just once.
■ Eric Berry’s job was to follow Gronkowski all night long, and Berry definitely won that matchup. Gronk played 78 of 81 snaps, but saw just six targets and only caught two passes for 33 yards. When Gronk was in-line, the Chiefs also chipped him with Justin Houston.
When he was moved to the slot, he couldn’t create separation. Berry was getting away with a lot of clutching and grabbing, and it clearly frustrated Gronk.
■ The pass protection was fine for most of the game, especially because the Chiefs rarely blitzed and usually only sent three. It was only at the end of the game, when the Chiefs could pin their ears back and get after the quarterback on each play, did it break down. All three Chiefs sacks came in the fourth quarter.
■ Marcus Cannon got beaten twice to his outside shoulder by Houston, and David Andrews got overpowered by Allen Bailey on a bull rush for another sack, all in the fourth quarter. Cannon played 1,276 snaps in 2016, and didn’t have a play as bad as he did on one of the Houston sacks. He only allowed two sacks all of last season — both in Week 1, coincidentally.
■ The run blocking was mixed. Andrews and Shaq Mason had the key clear-outs for Mike Gillislee’s first touchdown, and Joe Thuney set up a nice wall. Thuney, Andrews and James Develin helped clear the way for Gillislee’s second touchdown and Mason did a great job on the third touchdown. Andrews and Amendola had great blocks to spring James White for a 10-yard run on third and 7 (Edelman’s and Amendola’s blocking at receiver is hard to replicate), and the Patriots had great blocking on back-to-back runs totaling 25 yards for Gillislee, with Nate Solder playing a part in both.
■ The short-yardage blocking was terrible, as the Patriots were stuffed twice in fourth and short. Thuney missed his block of Derrick Johnson on a stuffed third and 1, got overpowered by Roy Miller on one stuffed run on the goal line, and got absolutely manhandled by Houston on a minus-4 run for Gillislee.
When the Chiefs had the ball . . .
■ The Patriots had an interesting use of their personnel, which I chalk up more to this being a unique matchup against the Chiefs than what to expect moving forward. The Chiefs have a lot of speed on offense, and the Patriots used a 3-2-6 defense for most of the night to try to counter it.
Devin McCourty was used most of the game as an in-the-box defender, switching off with Patrick Chung on covering Travis Kelce. Jordan Richards played more snaps on Thursday (42) than he did in 19 games last season (18), and he was used down in the box to provide run support and cover the running backs. Duron Harmon played 63 of 69 snaps and was the free safety.
Gilmore (left cornerback) and Butler (right cornerback) stuck to one side the entire night, playing a lot of zone coverage. Kyle Van Noy played every snap of the game and was mostly used in the middle, while Dont’a Hightower played on the edge all game until he got hurt, which should be their roles moving forward.
■ The Patriots played mostly Cover 2 and Cover 3 right before halftime, and let the Chiefs march 92 yards for a score. Again, if the Patriots paid Gilmore all that money, they should use him in man coverage.
■ On Hill’s 75-yard touchdown, Gilmore didn’t trail him down the field, and McCourty had his back turned.
The Chiefs were running three verticals – Hill down one side, Chris Conley down the other, and Kelce down the middle — and the Patriots were either in a Cover 2 or Cover 4.
If it was Cover 4, then Gilmore was at fault. But Butler also slowed down, and let Conley race past him, as well. Gilmore and Butler were standing on essentially the same yardage line, giving the appearance that the Patriots were in Cover 2, and Gilmore played it correctly.
McCourty should have paid attention to Hill, but he also had to worry about Kelce. Running three verticals against a Cover 2 is a perfect play call.
■ And on Hunt’s 78-yarder, not only was the scheme too complicated and required a lot of rotating and communication, but the Patriots were also caught with Cassius Marsh covering Hunt 1 on 1. Advantage: Chiefs.
■ From the “It wasn’t all bad” file: McCourty, despite playing a part in that long touchdown, is a phenomenal player. He had three impressive open-field tackles, corralling Kelce, the speedy Hill and De’Anthony Thomas for a 2-yard loss on the goal line.
McCourty had a tremendous pass breakup against Kelce, and also showed impressive hustle late in the fourth quarter, catching Hunt from behind and pushing him out of bounds on a 58-yard run. McCourty easily could have given up on the play, as many of his teammates did. Between his tackling skills, coverage skills and overall smarts on defense, McCourty is the team’s best defender.
■ The Patriots at least played the Chiefs’ gimmick plays well. The Chiefs used a lot of college football plays – read-options, Wildcat formations and shovel passes – but didn’t break any big plays off them.
■ Maybe there’s a reason Richards only played 18 snaps last season. Late in the second quarter, he was incredibly slow diagnosing a passing play, and Hunt caught a short pass and scampered into the end zone.
Richards got credit for a tackle for loss and forced fumble, but it was really Gilmore who made the play. But Belichick apparently trusts Richards on special teams, as he served as the all-important punt protector in place of the injured Nate Ebner.
■ David Harris only played two snaps, as speed is definitely not his game. And on one of his snaps, he completely whiffed on Hunt in the backfield, leading to a 7-yard gain. We still don’t fully understand why the Patriots kept him on the team.
■ Rookie DE Deatrich Wise had some nice pass rushes, beating a double team to hit Alex Smith and getting the pressure that led to Trey Flowers’s first sack (though Wise’s sack was of the coverage variety). DT Alan Branch was on the ground a lot, getting manhandled by guard Mitch Morse.