The New England Patriots didn't score a single touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals as they fell, 13-6, in Week 5 of the regular season. Not only does that mean the Patriots lose their first game of the season, it also means that quarterback Tom Brady didn't throw a touchdown pass for the first time in over 50 games.
Individual accolades and records aren't very important in football, especially not when your team has a 4-1 record, but Brady's faltering numbers reflect a greater issue for the Patriots.
The game itself was ugly for both sides, but the Bengals understand their issues on offense lie solely on the shoulders of their young quarterback Andy Dalton. Having poor quarterback play is a problem, but it is at least just one issue that needs to be rectified.
The Patriots appear to have many issues throughout their offense.
Struggling to score against the Bengals isn't a major issue. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer watches over one of the very best units in the NFL. However, scoring just six points against a team that was missing starting defensive end Michael Johnson and superstar cornerback Leon Hall is unacceptable for any team with playoff aspirations.
Over the coming days, the Internet will be littered with articles following the narrative by pointing the finger at the missing players and young receivers. Any offense that loses Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker during the offseason and is without Rob Gronkowski and Stevan Ridley through injury is always going to have issues at the skill positions.
However, placing all the blame on the team's inexperienced players is unfair.
It may be logical and an easy excuse, but it's not an accurate representation of what happened in Ohio. The young and inexperienced receivers played their part, but so did the Patriots offensive line and their oft-untouchable quarterback.
There isn't a specific area of the Patriots offense that needs to be fixed.
Often when an offense falters, it's because one unit isn't working. Sometimes the offensive line can't give the quarterback enough time to throw the ball. Sometimes receivers can't catch the ball. Sometimes, the quarterback is the problem, something the Bengals have demonstrated this season.
Instead, the Patriots need to execute better in all areas and be a more consistent unit.
In recent years, the Patriots have executed as well as any other team in all facets of offense. With players like Gronkowski, Hernandez, Welker and Randy Moss before them, it was easy to overpower teams. However, the base of their offense always began with Brady and the offensive line.
Everyone knows of Brady's precision and consistency, but the Patriots' offensive line has always played a major role in the success of the offense as a whole. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has consistently put out one of the most solid units in the NFL.
But some minor cracks appear to be forming.
The Bengals have the deepest and most talented defensive line in the NFL. However, the unit hasn't performed as well this season as it did last year. Yet the Patriots gave up four sacks and allowed pressure to disrupt a number of plays throughout the game.
On the Patriots' first third down of the game, the Bengals came out in their base 4-3 defense. The Patriots lined up with two receivers to the left and one to the right. The crucial player on this play is left tackle Nate Solder.
Solder took over as the full-time starter for Matt Light entering last season. He has been an excellent addition to the line for the most part, but on this occasion he appeared to be unsure of his assignment.
Solder didn't have to face the Bengals' normal starter at right defensive end, Michael Johnson, but backup Wallace Gilberry is one of the best backup defensive ends in the NFL.
Gilberry is very good, but he doesn't have to work hard here. Solder hesitates at the snap and looks inside as if he is going to run block. As soon as he does that, Gilberry is able to jump past his outside shoulder.
By the time Solder reacts, Gilberry is working his way into the backfield unopposed.
Brady initially faked the run with his back, so he never had a chance to get rid of the ball before Gilberry arrived.
Although Brady is a surefire Hall of Fame quarterback, he has never been an overwhelmingly good quarterback under pressure. The combination of excellent offensive line play and his ability to diagnose plays or adjust in the pocket allows him to consistently excel, but there were a number of plays in this game that were ruined because Brady couldn't make a throw with a defender in his face.
There were only a handful of these plays throughout the game, but because the Patriots didn't have much of a deep threat, they suffered because of them. Without game-breakers like Randy Moss, Hernandez or Gronkowski in the lineup, the Patriots don't have any consistent deep threats. For that reason, their offense is reliant on methodically moving the ball down the field in shorter increments.
When that is your approach on offense, it's tougher to compensate for negative plays.
Last season, when they weren't consistently getting big plays from Brandon Lloyd or their tight ends, the Patriots could still rely on their exceptional running game. However, against the Bengals, the running game was very inconsistent. Without Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, they couldn't get it going.
LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden shared 17 carries for 75 yards.
The longest run the Patriots could muster on the day was just 12 yards, but they had seven runs of at least five yards and four receptions of at least five yards from their backs.
The issue wasn't the lack of big plays from the running game; it was the lack of consistency. The Patriots never have relied on big plays from their running game. Just like their passing philosophy, they prefer consistency on every carry.
Consistency is not what the Patriots got against the Bengals. Blount had 12 carries and appeared to be the Patriots' primary option on offense to begin the game, but a crucial fumble later in the second quarter shifted Bolden into the lineup.
On 2nd-and-10, the Patriots stretched the defense out so that the Bengals had just six defenders in the box. With the Patriots having six blockers tight to the quarterback, they should have been able to get a good gain with good execution upfront.
Blount is propelled into the secondary unopposed. He actually makes an excellent cut to move across the formation and extend the run, but he failed to control the football when he absorbed a blindside hit from a Bengals defender.
This is the type of execution that is holding the Patriots back.
There was nothing wrong with the decision to run. There was nothing wrong with the blocking. The defense didn't do anything spectacular. But one mistake from Blount completely negated everything they had previously done on that drive.
With the Patriots, the thought process for many analysts is that Brady will always overcome the mistakes of those around him. No matter whom Brady has played with throughout his career, he has done enough for the Patriots to win games consistently. The Patriots are 4-1 this season, so he's still doing that, but he's not blameless for the poor performance of the offense.
There were three plays in particular that showed off Brady's individual struggles.
The first came on a 1st-and-10 when Brady didn't show his typical patience and awareness.
After play action, Brady settled in the pocket before being forced to sidestep some pressure. Brady kept his eyes downfield and easily reset himself outside of the pocket, but he never looked into the flat, where he had a receiver who was wide open.
It's okay to ignore the underneath route when you have a better option down the field, but Brady doesn't on this throw.
Not only does Brady not have a better option down the field, he never gives his receiver a chance to make a play. Brady's pass is wild and flies out of bounds so far that Edelman pulled up in his route 10 yards before the ball arrived.
That play was a small example of a greater problem, but the other two plays were big misses that could have been the difference between winning and losing the game.
On 1st-and-10, the Patriots come out with three receivers to the left, one to the right and a running back in the backfield. The Bengals are threatening to blitz Brady well before the snap and have just three defenders to the right side of the formation.
By the time Brady gets to the top of his drop, he has already diagnosed the play. Brady is staring directly at the defender dropping into an underneath zone to the left side of the field. He is doing that to hold the defender outside, creating a throwing lane for his receiver running up the seam.
The Patriots' offensive line picks up the blitz, so Brady has plenty of time and space to throw the ball. He locates Danny Amendola, who is wide open, and throws a pass to him that appears to be accurate.
However, Amendola doesn't score a touchdown, and the replay shows that it is Brady's fault.
Because of the athleticism of the defenders in the NFL, ball placement is very important at this level. On this play, Brady's ball placement is good enough for the completion, but it prevents Amendola from moving down the field. It puts the pressure on him to make a very athletic catch.
Amendola is unable to get into the end zone because of Brady's pass. The Patriots were subsequently forced to kick a field goal.
The other most telling play from Brady came at the end of the game, when the Patriots were trying to send the game to overtime with a touchdown. The Patriots came out with two wide receivers to either side of the formation and a running back next to Brady in the backfield. It was 1st-and-10 on the 27-yard line, but there were only 26 seconds left in the game.
Brady had plenty of time in the pocket and wasn't under pressure when he let the ball go.
In spite of that, his pass came out limp and was easily intercepted by Adam Jones of the Bengals. The poor pass may be excused by the conditions—a monsoon-like shower had come and gone before this play—but the decision cannot.
Brady wasn't rushed into the decision. He had time to survey the field and decide where to throw the ball. At worst, he should have thrown it away to give his team another chance. Instead, he forced the ball to Aaron Dobson, who was well-covered throughout his route.
Like he had done at other times during the game, Brady forced this pass and paid the price for it.
The Patriots can fix their offense, but they need much better play from their quarterback and better execution overall from their supporting cast. Presuming Gronkowski, Ridley, Edelman and even Amendola, who is only just back from injury, can all get healthy before the end of the season, that should not be a problem.
Even if Brady isn't at his best for the rest of the season, improvements from those players with the impressive play of the defense should be enough to make the Patriots a contender again this season.
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