The only reason the Patriots are 2-1 is because their offense has compensated for the shortcomings of their defense.
New England is averaging 33 points, the second-most in the NFL (behind the Los Angeles Rams). It took a heroic comeback in the final 2 minutes and 24 seconds, capped by Brandin Cooks’s toe-tapping touchdown catch, to beat Houston, 36-33, Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
The Houston offense erupted in Foxborough after scoring just 20 points through the first two games. The last time the Texans scored more than 33 points was in Week 16 of the 2015 season.
New England’s defensive issues have been widespread, from missed tackles to blown coverages. They hold league worsts in points allowed (31.7), yards per game (461), and yards per play (7.1).
“We obviously just have to do a much better job,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said on Tuesday. “I would say No. 1, we’re always going to have to tackle better. I’m always going to go back to fundamentals. We’re going to go back to playing our technique better.”
One of the most troubling aspects of the team’s defensive struggles is the tendency to allow chunk plays.
In Week 1, Kansas City marched into Foxborough and poured on 42 points, the most any Patriots defense has allowed under Bill Belichick. Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill took advantage of a blown coverage between Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty, streaking up the field for an untouched 75-yard touchdown. Later in the game, Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt outran two Patriots linebackers, then turned a long catch into a 78-yard score.
New England only allowed 20 points to a high-powered New Orleans Saints offense in Week 2, but the Patriots still yielded four passing plays of 25 or more yards. They allowed three such plays against Houston.
Through three games, New England has given up 10 completions of at least 25 yards. Last season, the Patriots allowed only 27.
The linebackers haven’t covered well, and the front seven has produced only six sacks, allowing opposing quarterbacks time to keep plays alive.
New England’s revamped secondary hasn’t played to its potential. In the offseason, the Patriots made Gilmore among the richest cornerbacks in the league (an average value of $13 million per year). He and cornerback Malcolm Butler are Pro Bowlers, while McCourty and Patrick Chung are among the best safety duos in the league.
The Patriots are giving up 9.1 yards per passing attempt this season. They are allowing a league-worst 331 passing yards per game after surrendering only 238 yards per game last season.
Most troubling is they allowed 300-yard passing performances to the Chiefs’ Alex Smith, who has averaged 198 passing yards per game throughout his career, and Deshaun Watson, a rookie who has started two NFL games.
Watson’s mobility consistently created problems for the Patriots. With less than six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, a horde of Patriots swarmed the slippery quarterback. Watson somehow evaded many oncoming defenders, rolled to his right, and found a wide open D’Onta Foreman for 31 yards.
Despite steadily pressuring Watson, the Patriots managed only two sacks. They could face similar issues on Sunday, as Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, one of the NFL’s premier dual-threat quarterbacks, visits Foxborough.
“We obviously had some struggles there and we need to do a better job,” Patricia said, referring to defending Watson. “The unfortunate part about it for us is Cam Newton is next up. This guy is just so dangerous – his ability to get out of the pocket, his ability to escape tackles. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s athletic. He’s deceptively fast. [He’s] just very experienced, calm. [He’s] just a very savvy player. [It will] be a huge challenge for us. This guy is an outstanding player.”
The combination of Newton’s speed and Carolina’s pass-catching running backs will test New England, which struggled to cover Hunt out of the backfield in Week 1. He caught five passes for 98 yards and had two receiving touchdowns (and one rushing).
Carolina drafted running back Christian McCaffrey and receiver Curtis Samuel, two dynamic players who can line up all over the field. McCaffrey has 18 catches through three games, second among running backs.
The Patriots will need to clean up their tackling and stay disciplined on assignments to prevent the big plays that have troubled them this season.
“They’ve got a little bit of a different twist to their offense in the way that they use those guys with specialty plays and with [Cam] Newton’s ability to improvise and have running plays where they run the option, things like that,” Belichick said on Tuesday. “That’s a lot to get ready for and they have a lot of good players.”