FOXBOROUGH — The box score says the Panthers beat the Patriots on Sunday, 33-30, at Gillette Stadium.
After the game, the Patriots felt otherwise.
“We lost the game ourselves,” cornerback Malcolm Butler said. “There was nothing that Carolina was doing. Basically we beat ourselves.”
“Yup,” added linebacker Kyle Van Noy. “I’d say that.”
The Patriots aren’t quite panicking about their season yet, after Sunday’s loss dropped them to 2-2. But the level of concern about the defense has reached DEFCON 1 after another day of meltdowns led to a surprising loss at home.
The Panthers became the fourth straight team to gain at least 400 yards against the Patriots, putting up 444. Cam Newton became the fourth straight quarterback to throw for at least 300 yards, lighting up the Patriots for 316 yards and three touchdowns (plus a rushing score).
But the Patriots put the blame squarely on themselves. Four times the Patriots’ communication broke down in the secondary, allowing a wide-open receiver to pick up huge chunks of yardage: Passes of 43 and 39 yards to Kelvin Benjamin, a 28-yard touchdown to Fozzy Whittaker on a screen pass, and a 10-yard touchdown pass to Devin Funchess.
“It’s communication, it’s assignments, just busted coverages,” safety Duron Harmon said. “At the end of the day, it starts with communication. You can zone in on that.”
It’s the same problems the Patriots had in their Week 1 beatdown at the hands of the Chiefs.
Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia usually have these problems fixed by Week 4. But through four weeks, the Patriots have the worst scoring defense, yardage defense, and pass defense in the NFL. And Sunday was arguably their worst performance yet, due to the shocking number of communication breakdowns.
“Basically, everybody’s not on the same page,” Butler said. “It takes time with everything, but [there] needs to be a sense of urgency right now. A quarter of the season has gone away already. It’s time to pick it up.”
Watch: Ben Volin and Joe Sullivan break down the Patriots’ loss
This was a defense that finished No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed in 2016 en route to a Super Bowl title. The secondary returned most of its key players, with one exception — swapping out Logan Ryan and adding Stephon Gilmore.
Gilmore, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been at the heart of some of the team’s most egregious communication breakdowns. Gilmore and Eric Rowe appeared to get mixed up on the 43-yard pass to Benjamin in the second quarter. And Gilmore and Devin McCourty were not on the same page on Whittaker’s wide-open, 28-yard romp into the end zone.
“It had to look like a couple idiots out there,” McCourty said. “It was just a bad play.”
Gilmore, whose illegal hands to the face penalty on third down gave the Panthers new life on their game-winning drive, took the onus for the breakdowns.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I’ve got to get better at the communication part.”
Gilmore may have earned a spot on the bench to start the second half, as Butler and Rowe began the third quarter at cornerback. But Rowe was hurt on the first play of the quarter, and Gilmore came back into the game.
Gilmore’s teammates shared in some of the blame.
“It definitely wasn’t all him,” Harmon said. “I tell him that the whole time. You might have a mistake, but we all had mistakes. We all didn’t play the way we needed to play.”
But they haven’t played the way they have needed to now for four games. Some of the stats are shocking for a Belichick defense.
Last year, the longest touchdown the Patriots allowed was 26 yards, on a run by Tyrod Taylor. They allowed 53 passes of 20 yards, and just five passes of 40-plus yards all season long.
This year, the Patriots have already allowed four touchdowns longer than Taylor’s run. They’re on pace to allow 76 passes of 20-plus yards, and 16 passes of 40-plus.
They’ve let Alex Smith march up and down the field for 42 points and 368 passing yards. They let a rookie quarterback in Deshaun Watson light them up for 33 points and 301 passing yards. They let Newton, who averaged 15 points and 189 passing yards per game entering Sunday, put up 33 and 316. The Panthers averaged 7.4 yards per play, 11th-worst by the Patriots in Belichick’s 18 years, and marched down the field for the game-winning field goal with relative ease.
“It’s not acceptable,” Harmon said. “We’ve got a lot of good players at each level. We’re a talented defense, and we just need to start playing like it.”
The Patriots have been playing a decent amount of zone coverage this season, which requires more communication. Several players were asked if the Patriots need to simplify their scheme, perhaps to play more straight man-to-man coverage.
“We simplified,” Harmon said. “Can’t get more simple than what we’re doing.”
“I don’t think it’s overly complicated,” McCourty added. “It’s stuff we’ve been doing since I’ve been here.”
Without naming names, Harmon implied that the Patriots haven’t been as focused as they need to be. It’s fair to wonder if some of the Patriots became complacent this summer after winning yet another Super Bowl. Or if Gilmore, who signed a four-year, $65 million contract when free agency opened in March without even visiting the team, still has the necessary work ethic now that he’s cashed in. Or if Butler’s contract squabble this offseason and pending free agency has distracted him in his preparation.
“I really believe it’s a lack of focus,” Harmon said, speaking of no one in particular. “We need to go really look at ourselves tonight and we need to come with a better attitude tomorrow, an attitude to work, and be ready to do more.”
They don’t have much time to fix it. A game at Tampa Bay looms just four days away. Two weeks later, Matt Ryan and the Falcons come to town.
“Eventually they’re going to get it together,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Belichick is a solid defensive mind. He’s the best in the league, and he’ll get it figured out.”
But four weeks into the season, the Patriots keep beating themselves on defense, and the problems are much worse than anyone anticipated.