NASHVILLE — After playing some of its best football over the last few weeks, the Patriots’ secondary was dragging Sunday against the Titans, struggling like a bar crawler peeled off the floor of a Broadway saloon in New England’s 34-10 loss.
A unit that’s been sturdy gave up 228 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns to Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was 16 of 24 with a 125.0 passer rating. That’s survivable, but this stood out: The difficulties weren’t the result of coverage busts or obvious mental errors. The Patriots just got beat, especially Stephon Gilmore, who trailed Titans receiver Corey Davis for most of the game.
“I could have won that matchup a bit more, but he made some plays today where I have to give my hat off to him,” Gilmore said.
Davis caught 7 of 10 passes thrown to him for 125 yards and a touchdown, mostly with Gilmore in coverage. No opposing team has been so aggressive in targeting the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback this season, and the result was Gilmore’s worst game of the season.
That’s not necessarily saying much, since Gilmore has been fantastic and has held receivers including Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins in check, but he struggled covering Davis. In a conversation after the game, Gilmore mostly credited his opponent but did mention that he thought he was beaten at the line of scrimmage a few times.
“He stemmed me a little bit,” Gilmore said. “He had a good day.”
Gilmore was calm and matter-of-fact after the game. He said he’d move on quickly. He wasn’t visibly upset. He said he had no trouble with the footing at Nissan Stadium, a topic that came up because several players appeared to be slipping early in the game. One thing Gilmore did not mention but was obvious was that he has a head cold. A bug has been going around the team, and Gilmore sniffled through every response to every question.
There were times, such as the 23-yard touchdown Davis scored to cap the Titans’ second drive, when Gilmore had good coverage but gave up the play anyway because of a great throw, though Gilmore also got flagged for pass interference on that play, a penalty that was declined. Gilmore was flagged for pass interference twice in the game; the other flag was accepted and cost the Patriots 16 yards.
“Good throw, good catch,” Gilmore said of Davis’s touchdown. “Ran a double move and maybe I could have played it a little softer, but it was a good throw and catch.”
There were other times, such as the 20-yard pass Davis caught down the left sideline to convert on third and 14, where Gilmore was trailing by more than a couple yards.
Gilmore said he wasn’t surprised Mariota threw his way so often. It was a bold decision from the quarterback, Titans coach Mike Vrabel, and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur to play like they felt confident that Davis would win that matchup. Bold, but it paid off.
“I’ll take my guy over anybody,” Mariota said of Davis.
The Titans were missing receiver Taywan Taylor (foot), which diminished their options. Mariota, who suffered nerve damage in his throwing elbow in Week 1, did not appear limited and had a good day throwing downfield. He averaged 9.5 yards per pass attempt and the Titans completed eight passes of 20 yards or more. Four of those big plays went to Davis, but it wasn’t just on Gilmore. Tackling was poor in the open field and the Patriots had their first game of the season without a takeaway.
“We knew [Mariota] could make all the throws, we just didn’t do a good job of executing, execute our calls, executing our coverage,” safety Duron Harmon said. “He made some good throws but we knew he could make those good throws, we just needed to have tight coverage and we didn’t in some cases.”
On a play where Gilmore was called for pass interference, Harmon missed what might have been one of the easiest interceptions of his career. The ball bounced straight up off a helmet, and Harmon was standing underneath it. But he bobbled the ball and dropped it. It didn’t matter because of the penalty, but it was so out of character it contributed to the sense that this was just going to be a stinker of a day for more than one player.
The Patriots have gotten good secondary play more often than they haven’t this year, and Gilmore is the least of their worries. They now have a bye week to get healthy and move on from the loss. They’ll want to forget this one as fast as they can.