DETROIT – Let’s get this out of the way first: The Patriots were missing two of their very best defensive players, lineman Trey Flowers and safety Patrick Chung, as well as a starting cornerback in Eric Rowe in Detroit on Sunday night. That’s a significant handicap.
It is not, however, one large enough to explain away the litany of defensive indignities on display in the Patriots’ 26-10 loss to the Lions at Ford Field.
“Everything,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We’ve got to do everything better.”
This time it wasn’t just a platitude.
The Lions totaled 414 yards of offense, went 7 of 14 on third downs, and held the ball for 39:15 minutes. Matthew Stafford completed 75 percent of his passes, and Detroit didn’t punt until the fourth quarter. Until then, it seemed their only inefficiencies were some conservative play in the red zone and having punter Sam Martin active for the game in the first place.
“Time of possession was crazy,” safety Duron Harmon said. “I think at one point I looked up in the game and it was like 33 to 13 minutes in like the third or fourth quarter. We’ve got to get third down stops. We’ve got to do a lot of things better.”
When the Lions ran, the Patriots gave up 159 total yards and an average of 4.8 yards per rush. New England now has the dishonor of being the first team since the 2013 Packers to allow a Lions running back to rush for 100 yards. That back was versatile rookie Kerryon Johnson, whose comments after the game gave the impression that there are Ford trucks capable of fitting through the holes that were available to him Sunday.
“My job became very easy on 12 of those runs,” Johnson said. “I had a hole, and all I had to do was run through it and protect the ball.”
Johnson had success beating the Patriots to the edge and, on the inside, going against defensive tackle Malcom Brown, who was outplayed by Danny Shelton during training camp but has gotten considerable playing time.
New England’s linebackers looked slow and struggled in coverage. Third-down back Theo Riddick had an efficient 3-for-3 night with 36 yards. Rookie linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley had an interception and a critical tackle, but with Dont’a Hightower among those who struggled to keep up or chase down backs getting the edge, there were too many holes.
“I would say that’s a big issue for us,” McCourty said. “We’ve got to play well on Sunday. We’re going out there. It’s not like we’re not doing anything during the week. We’re working hard, practicing well. We’ve just got to go do it in the game, kind of let it go.”
Stafford played a great game and spread the ball around, with Golden Tate and Marvin Jones each collecting 69 receiving yards and Kenny Golladay adding another 53. Golladay gave Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones some problems — though Jones had one nice pass breakup and was part of a rotating corner group with JC Jackson, Keion Crossen, and Jason McCourty, who all struggled at times — and Marvin Jones was the recipient of a beautiful 33-yard touchdown pass that took advantage of a broken coverage by the Patriots.
Stephon Gilmore was with Golladay in the end zone, but Harmon should have been providing help. He went the wrong way and left Gilmore in a bad spot to defend the throw, something Harmon took responsibility for after the game.
“That’s my fault,” Harmon said. “A bust on the coverage from my part. I’ll take that.”
The secondary was, of course, left covering Lions receivers for mini-eternities because successful efforts by the pass rush were few and far between. That the absence of Flowers is so significant is concerning. Deatrich Wise had the lone sack on Stafford, but no one got consistent pressure.
Oh, and at one point the defense was busted for having 12 men on the field.
All in all, a terrible, no good, very bad day, the best news being that it’s over. The Patriots have been in similar situations before and recovered from them.
No one in the Patriots locker room had clear answers (“If I did, we’d be undefeated,” Devin McCourty said), but the general consensus was that there’s been an inability to translate successful practices to good game play, and that this was more concerning than the loss last week in Jacksonville.
“It’s up to us to get ourselves out of this mess,” Harmon said.