Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty took their medicine on Sunday.
They stood in the locker room following the Patriots’ surprising 33-30 loss to the Panthers, faced a throng of reporters, and patiently answered questions about the Patriots’ defensive breakdowns.
They get paid a lot of money to perform, and they were accountable. But Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are also paid a lot of money, and it’s time to hold them accountable for Sunday’s performance, too.
The breakdowns were ugly, no question. Rewatching the game, we saw Gilmore running around pre-snap, pointing fingers and unsure of whom to cover. We saw a walk-in touchdown on a screen pass, Kelvin Benjamin catching a pass with no defender within 12 yards of him, and no one bothering to cover Devin Funchess in the end zone. The Panthers did a great job of confusing the Patriots with motion, bunch formations, and unusual personnel packages, with two and three running backs on the field at the same time.
The players deserve plenty of blame for those breakdowns, but so do the coaches, starting with Belichick and Patricia. If the players don’t know how to handle a bunch formation, that’s on the coaches for not teaching them well enough. If the players don’t know how to rotate coverage when a man goes in motion before the snap, that’s on the coaches for not having the players prepared.
And if Cam Newton has all day to sit in the pocket and find his receivers, that’s on Belichick the GM for trading away talented players such as Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, and not replacing them adequately. The secondary hasn’t been good, but they aren’t getting much help from the guys up front, either. Against the Saints, the Patriots couldn’t defend pick plays. Against the Panthers, they couldn’t handle basic functions like bunch formations and pre-snap motion.
These issues are fixable, but only if the coaches do a better job of teaching them.
Other observations after re-watching the tape:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ Despite the final numbers — 30 points, 373 yards, and 7 of 14 on third down — the Patriots’ offense struggled for much of the afternoon, with just one touchdown in their first seven drives. The Panthers didn’t blitz much — we only counted five on 48 passing plays — and weren’t too exotic on defense, mostly playing a four-man front and a lot of zone defense.
But they borrowed a page from the Falcons’ playbook, taking away the middle of the field with their excellent linebackers, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson. They set up a wall across the middle of the field, taking away the quick slants and drag passes over the middle, and then swarmed to the football. It was telling that the Patriots’ leading receivers barely gained any yardage — 10 catches for 47 yards for James White, and six catches for 42 yards for Danny Amendola. Kuechly, who finished with 14 tackles, is just a phenomenal player — fast, physical, smart, and instinctive.
While the Patriots occasionally took advantage of a personnel mismatch — such as Amendola catching a 16-yard wheel route against a linebacker — the Panthers’ players were quicker and more physical than the Patriots’ offense.
■ The Patriots’ struggling offensive line also forced Brady to get rid of the ball quickly, and turned him skittish in the pocket. Brady only hit two passes for more than 20 yards all game, and of his first 12 passes, three were screen passes, and two went to James Develin.
And while Brady threaded a couple of perfect touchdown passes to Chris Hogan and Amendola, he also made bad throws on back-to-back plays in the second quarter when he rushed his throw and didn’t set his feet, underthrowing a wide-open Dwayne Allen on a deep ball, and overthrowing a wide open Brandin Cooks deep down the seam on third and 10.
■ Speaking of Cooks, he was invisible for a good chunk of the game. He had two targets on the Patriots’ opening drive, then didn’t see a pass come his way again until 2:47 remained in the third quarter. Overall he caught just 3 of 6 passes for 38 yards, and this is now the second time in four games that the opponent has shut him down (Saints).
■ The Patriots need to work on their screen game. They completed 5 of 6 screen passes, and converted two third downs, but gained just 17 yards on the five completions. The Panthers, meanwhile, completed 4 of 5 screen passes for 66 yards, four first downs and a touchdown.
■ The Patriots’ short-yardage rushing game is a serious problem. They entered the game just 1 of 5 when rushing the ball on third and 1 or fourth and 1, and they were afraid to even try to punch the ball in on Sunday. They ran five plays inside the Panthers’ 5-yard line, and threw on four of them, completing two for touchdowns. The one run play was stuffed, naturally. David Andrews got completely blown up by Star Lotulelei on the play.
■ However, the Patriots were actually running the ball well for most of the day. Mike Gillislee had runs of 5, 9, 8, 6, 13, and 6 yards through the first three quarters, though he also had three of zero or negative yards in that stretch. The Patriots called 48 passes and 19 runs, and had to abandon the run once they went down, 30-16, but should have called more runs in the first half. Their first drive had seven passes and no runs. Gillislee only played 18 snaps all day.
■ Impressive to see Rob Gronkowski play all 70 snaps, particularly with some of the hits he takes over the middle and in the run game. Allen played just nine snaps and still doesn’t have a catch all season, though the one miss on Sunday was Brady’s fault. Cooks getting only six targets and one carry in 64 snaps is not a great sign.
When the Panthers had the ball
Let’s go over those communication breakdowns, one by one:
■ First, the Fozzy Whittaker 28-yard screen pass touchdown. What a mess. The problem began when Christian McCaffrey lined up out wide as a receiver, making him Gilmore’s responsibility.
McCaffrey went in motion into the backfield, and you see Gilmore and McCourty waving and pointing about whom to pick up.
When Cam Newton snapped the ball, McCaffrey swung out to the opposite side of the field, and three players followed him — Gilmore, McCourty, and Kyle Van Noy. No one bothered to cover tight end Ed Dickson, who could have walked in for a touchdown had Newton thrown him the ball.
But the play was a designed screen to Whittaker. It also appeared that Elandon Roberts was supposed to cover Whittaker, but instead Roberts rushed Newton, leaving Whittaker wide open.
You had three players covering a decoy, and a wide-open tight end blocking for a wide open running back. Not the way the Patriots drew it up.
■ On the 43-yarder to Benjamin, the Panthers lined up with four receivers to the left in a bunch formation.
After the snap, Malcolm Butler and McCourty picked up their man, but Gilmore and Rowe both picked up Russell Shepard across the middle, leaving Benjamin wide open on the left sideline, with no defender within 12 yards.
Not the way the Patriots drew it up.
■ On Funchess’s 10-yard touchdown, which happened just two plays later, the Patriots again struggled with a bunch formation. Funchess went in motion from right to left, with Rowe trailing him. When Funchess stopped on the left side of the formation, Gilmore kicked out wide and hand gestured to Rowe, which Rowe took as a sign that Gilmore would pick up Funchess. But Gilmore and Rowe both covered Dickson, and Funchess had an easy catch in the end zone.
Not the way the Patriots drew it up.
■ One time, a communication breakdown benefited the Patriots. In the first quarter, Butler lined up across from Funchess in man coverage.
Funchess ran a dummy route, sitting at the line of scrimmage, while Damiere Byrd ran a deep fly.
Whether it was a mistake or instincts, Butler left Funchess and bolted downfield to double-cover Byrd, coming up with an easy interception while Funchess stood wide open.
Not the way the Patriots drew it up, but they’ll take it.
■ The most interesting revelation from rewatching the game — almost all of the Patriots’ coverage breakdowns came in man-to-man, not zone, as many of us hypothesized on Sunday. The Patriots played man coverage for much of the first half, but instead of matching up a cornerback to a specific receiver, they kept Gilmore on the right side and Butler on the left all game as a way to prevent Newton from breaking free on scrambles. When the Panthers’ players went in motion, the Patriots’ defenders stuck to their side of the field, but rotated their coverage. They just didn’t communicate it well.
At halftime, the Patriots switched to more zone coverage, and had fewer breakdowns. We counted man coverage for 23 passing plays, and zone for 11.
■ Credit Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula for running circles around Patricia. The Panthers froze Patriots defenders with constant use of end-around motions and read-option runs.
They converted a third-and-7 with a designed draw play, resulting in a 13-yard run for Newton. They created confusion with their bunch formations and unique personnel groupings, using two and even three running backs in the game at the same time. And they screen-passed the Patriots into oblivion. On their first touchdown drive, the Panthers went screen-reverse-screen to gain 52 yards on three plays and reach the end zone.
It looked awfully similar to the way the Chiefs attacked the Patriots in Week 1. The Patriots don’t have great speed or depth at linebacker, and covering running backs has been a big problem. McCaffrey only had 10 touches for 49 yards, but he gave the Patriots fits trying to match up and account for him. Marquis Flowers and Van Noy bit hard on a fake-handoff to McCaffrey, opening the middle of the field for Newton to run it in from 7 yards out.
■ The pass rush was also spotty, though it didn’t help that Deatrich Wise’s key third-down sack was wiped out by Gilmore’s illegal hands to the face penalty. On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Patriots only rushed three on third and 4, and Newton had all day to sit in the pocket and wait for Benjamin to come open against a Cover 2 zone for 39 huge yards. Cassius Marsh also lost the edge on a big third-and-2 play, turning a stuffed run into an 8-yard gain for Newton. The Patriots hit Newton just four times on passing plays.