by Scott Benson
Maybe next time they ought to come home between games.
Setting up camp on the campus of San Jose State University for a week didn’t do much to steel the Patriots for the San Diego Chargers, obviously. It’s hard to imagine a team that was less prepared to compete and win Sunday night.
Jet lag would have been an improvement.
The Patriots have another one of these two-game swings out west; in early December, they’ll make consecutive stops in Seattle and Oakland.
Make them come home in the interim. For that matter, make them change planes a half-dozen times on each trip. It can’t end any worse, because the acclimated Pats looked all too comfortable getting their asses handed to them Sunday night.
At times of crisis, some people boil water and tear up bed sheets for bandages. This is sort of like that. It’s a S.W.O.T. analysis of the loss to the Chargers (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) which is a common strategic planning method used to keep large groups busy with something while they’re waiting for catered lunch. Actually, it’s supposed to identify the internal and external challenges to the success or failure of a given venture. Including ones that are stumbling along at 3-2.
Somebody…boil some water!
You saw the game – did you see any strength exhibited there? You’d have to go to the micro-level to find anything positive, and even then, the pickings were slim. Ty Warren beat double teams to get into the backfield a couple of times. Mark LeVoir was alert and fell on a fumble. I honest to God can’t think of anything else.
The greatest strength the Patriots have at the moment is the league they’re playing in. In the AFC, both Tennessee and Buffalo have gotten off to fast starts, but neither are exactly playoff-hardened groups. No one knows yet whether they will hold up over the long run. The Usual Suspects – Indy, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, San Diego, Denver – all have issues of their own, and there’s no thirteen or fourteen win team emerging yet. Certainly no sixteen win team (do you want to have a champagne toast when the Titans finally lose? Me neither.).
Point being is that even with another horrible performance under their belt (two out of five, by the way), the 3-2 Patriots still have time to gather themselves, if there’s anything to gather under all that mess we watched the other night. Fortunately for them, the rest of the NFL has done all it could to provide them with a level playing field on which to do so.
No Patriots offensive lineman has fallen faster and farther than Dan Koppen. I challenge any NFL offense to succeed with a 296 lb. man flying through their backfield, limbs flailing, arms akimbo, feet kicking up dust (just like Elaine Benes), immediately after every snap. It looks for all the world as though he has been launched, which he probably has. The Patriots have to do something about Koppen, whose quickness and intelligence has now been neutralized by stronger forces, literally. I’m not sure what can be done right now, other than to plug Russ Hochstein in there, but over the long-term? I’d put it this way – do you really see the Patriots ever going on any kind of run again without first redefining and rebuilding their lines on both sides of the ball? Because whatever they’re doing now is not [email protected] working. Whatever ‘enhancements’ they’ve made since they last won a Super Bowl – particularly to the offensive line scheme – are being countered by their opponents in increasingly bolder fashion.
Here’s the other thing from Sunday night. I agree, Deltha O’Neal was hardly inspirational in his defense of all those passes that went over his head. Deltha O’Neal is not going to cause us to write home, ever. Deltha O’Neal was not a savvy signing at the wire; it was simply a marriage of last-second convenience between a declining veteran and a questionable secondary, the sort of bloodless transaction that often happens between desperate strangers at closing time.
Okay? It was all Deltha’s fault. Except it wasn’t, unless you believe that the safeties bear little responsibility for the deep part of the secondary. I think James Sanders might have worked himself into the camera shots of those long passes – once. Otherwise, there was only a single, miserable, beaten cornerback, be it O’Neal, Hobbs or Wheatley. Criminy. There are three safeties on the field for a lot of these plays, and not one of them can get close enough to the receiver to get on television?
Oddly, I attribute some of this to Rodney Harrison, the veteran safety turned faux linebacker who plays almost every play at the line of scrimmage these days. The fact is, I don’t know whether Rodney can hold down the back line anymore, but I do know that the guys they have doing it now can’t. Whatever advantage Harrison’s positioning is supposed to be creating, or whatever liability it’s supposed to be covering, is it more mission-critical than the wide-open barn door at the back of the secondary?
I’ll trade a few more completions to the opposing tight ends for a cutback on the throw-it-as-far-as-you-can crap. And if Harrison can’t be of any more help than Sanders and the others back there, then how the hell did the Patriots allow themselves to get in that position?
Look, the Patriots corners aren’t great, or even good. All the more reason not to leave them out on an island. The fifteen yard cushions are bad enough. By the way, since the deep secondary is no longer sacred ground, the Patriots should let their corners play up at the line of scrimmage, where they could at least punch the receivers in the nuts or something.
This brings me to Dean Pees, the Patriots defensive coordinator. Talk about things that aren’t working. Pees’ defense has become little more than a human blocking sled in the three seasons he’s been in charge. Yeah, the opposing offenses have to push, sometimes a little uphill, but if they just keep pushing, they’ll move the sled from one end zone to the other as many times as they like. There’s nothing there to stop them.
It’s funny that Foxbrough is thought to be a place of innovative defensive game planning, because the Patriots defense has become the worst sort of bland. Reactive rather than proavtive, they don’t do anything but trot out to their positions and then trot back. They’re just there, because somebody has to be there, it’s the rule. Anything that happens is someone else’s doing, not theirs. I think the worst part of every Patriots game is when, during an opponent’s drive, you realize that there isn’t any way in hell that anybody’s going to force a fumble or step in front of a pass or throw the other quarterback through the air. Nobody there is going to change the game; as mere observers, it can only pass them by. It would be hard to argue that Dean Pees’ rival coaches haven’t passed him by too.
All of this can’t be attributed to just one thing, of course; let’s just say if Belichick and Pioli had produced even respectable defensive players with the offensive draft picks they’ve chunked lately, things might not look so grim today.
I also wonder how about their modern-day personnel acumen when I see what’s become of Adalius Thomas, who was once a feared pass rusher. Now, he’s twenty yards downfield chasing ballcarriers when he’s not lost somewhere else. There’s no explosive sacks, no tackles for loss, no athletic interceptions downfield. There’s just nothing. Aside from a spurt here and there, he has done zero for the Patriots, nor have they done anything for him. Why the hell not?
I think a situation like this possibly dissolving season raises all kinds of interesting questions, both in the short and long terms. I think it’ll be interesting to see if they can make anything of this year, with a team that is as imperfect now as it was undefeated just a year ago. In the long-term, I’m interested to find out whether the Patriots will end up treating this as simply a lost season for the Team of the Decade, moving resolutely ahead with the same script and cast, or if they’ll take the more sober view that for all intents and purposes, the decade is over, and act accordingly.
It’s not like people haven’t been moving the ball and scoring points on the Denver Broncos, the Patriots’ opponent when they finally return to Gillette next Monday night.
The Broncos, despite their 4-2 record, are 30th in defense (giving up almost 400 yards a game) and 28th in scoring defense (allowing almost 26 points a game). They have the worst pass defense in the league (ranked 32nd, giving up more than 250 YPG on a 72% completion percentage) and are 26th against the run (138 yards a game, with nine rushes going for more than 20 yards).
You may ask yourself what that has to do with the Patriots and their inconsistent popgun offense. After all, the numbers – especially pass defense – were nearly as promising last Sunday night, and after blowing their one chance to make a game of it with perhaps the most discouraging First and Goal sequence in history, the Pats were reduced to calling time outs with one second left just to save face. They failed to convert that one too.
The theory has been floated over the last month that Matt Cassel has merely been keeping the seat warm until third-round choice Kevin O’Connell could take over. If so, I’d suggest there’s no time like the present. Cassel has shown nothing but decidedly mediocre production, and there’s appears to be little hope for tangible and lasting improvement before the season goes all the way down the tubes. If O’Connell is going to get a shot at any point, why not now, in a home game against the worst pass defense in the league?
Of course, playing from behind for 60 minutes may not be the best atmosphere in which to nurture a rookie quarterback. It seems almost certain that the beleaguered Patriots will find themselves trailing early next Monday night, when they line up against the 4th best offense in the league. The Broncos may be flawed, but they rack up the points (6th in scoring at nearly 28 points a game), particularly through the air (2nd, with 1600 yards and 12 touchdowns). If trends continue, the Pats will do a respectable job against Denver’s 10th ranked running game, but be completely at Denver’s mercy whenever they go back to pass.