New England Patriots: 3 Games That Explain the 7-Year Super Bowl Drought
It was one of the worst games in recent memory. If it weren't for Twitter, I probably would have smashed my TV, my coffee table or something valuable. It's an issue I am working through.
I've put a sample of my Twitter feed from Sunday afternoon at the bottom of this post. There were a number of things I'd take back now that I've had a few days to cool off.
First of all, my "Puss in Pads" comment was uncalled for. The Pats defense showed fight in this game. They were bringing a lot of energy all game and were inches away from a number of plays. But they had a bad day, giving up long third-down plays and not tackling well. The Steelers offense had a great day.
It is only one game, but a game that is getting much more play from the media than the previous two games of solid defense versus the Jets and Cowboys. After the Patriots went into Pittsburgh last year and dominated the Steelers defense, did everyone decide that Pittsburgh just could not play defense and condemn the team?
I know, I'm an apologist, and the Patriots are 32nd in the league in pass defense by yards allowed. My main problem with the analysis of the Patriots as a whole is that it completely ignores how much of a problem the offense is in these losses.
Why does the Patriots offense get a free pass for failures, while the defense gets slaughtered?
First off, let's talk defense. Pass yards allowed is not a meaningful stat by itself. We need a stat that takes into account the effect a team's offense has on its defense.
Out of laziness or efficiency, part of me simply wants to say, "Ok, this defense is terrible," because that is easy. Then if you're the typical Boston sports radio host, you can move on to ripping Bill Belichick for failing to hire a defensive coordinator.
But, if we really want to discuss this at a meaningful level, we need to dig deeper.
Here's a stat that supports my contention that the Patriots defense is not as bad as you think: The Patriots defense is allowing 22.9 points per game—better than half of NFL teams.
You want to throw around misleading stats, then I'll throw back the stat that matters most aside from wins—points . In 2010, only seven defenses allowed fewer points than the Patriots. Yes, the much-maligned Pats defense was 8th in the NFL in points allowed last year.
Another factor working against the defense this year is penalty yards against—the Pats defense is tied for 3rd most in the league at 482. So the referees have handed over almost a game's worth of yardage to offenses. My point is that this is a somewhat flukey statistic that should level out as the season goes along.
Another factor that greatly contributed towards the loss to the Steelers was the completely ineffective Patriots offense.
The Pats offense went three-and-out on their first two possessions and only scored after the defense gave them the ball at the Steelers' 8-yard line. So credit the defense for the Pats' first touchdown. The offense did not score another touchdown until there were less than three minutes left in the game.
Take away the safety that Brady gave the Steelers on the last possession and the Pats defense gave up a net of 16 points. 16 points. How does this team not win given that fact? I'll tell you how: The offense was horrible.
Yes, the defense could not get off the field last Sunday and overall the performance was very bad. But, aren't the Pats 5-2? And 19-4 over the last 23 regular season games?
If you looked at win-loss alone, you'd assume this team must have an adequate enough defense to give them a chance to win 82.6 percent of their games.
So let's look at the games they have not won. In their last 3 playoff games, they are 0-3, but look at these games. The main reason they lost is the offense's failure to adjust and score points.
In three playoff losses since 2007, the Patriots offense has scored an average of 16.3 points.
Here's the Pats offensive output in the 1st half of the 2010 divisional round playoff loss to the Jets:
First series: 8 plays, interception. The Jets got the ball at the Patriots 12-yard line after a TD-saving tackle by Alge Crumpler. The defense allowed zero points after this turnover to the Jets.
I miss Crumpler, by the way. He seemed like a good character guy and a leader for the team. Watch the replay of this it was an amazing hustle play akin to that of Ben Watson's versus the Broncos in 2005 after Brady was picked off at the 1-yard line by Champ Bailey.
Second series: 11 plays, field goal
Third series: three and out, punt
Fourth series: three and out, punt
Fifth series: six plays, fake punt fumbled, Jets recover
Sixth series: two plays, kneel-down to end the half—Jets 14 Patriots 3
In the creative words of a former co-worker, that is HOROCIOUS (not a real word but perhaps it should be -- thanks Eddie Munchkins).
I think the question we should all be asking is:
Why Does the Patriots Offense Disappear in Big Games?
The Steelers game is just a symptom of a much bigger problem. It was yet another game in which the offense got punched in the mouth early on and never adjusted. It reminded me of last year's playoff game versus the Jets. It reminded me of the previous year's playoff game versus the Ravens. It reminded me of Super Bowl XLII versus the !@#$%&%, deal-with-the-devil Giants.
Much like the loss to the Bills earlier this year, the Pats' defense was put in bad situations by the offense. In the Buffalo game, it was four interceptions by Tom Brady. This offense is so good most of the time that we ignore it's contributions to losses and just pin it all on the defense.
This is a troubling trend. Why doesn't the offense adjust? Why doesn't a promising rookie running back in Stevan Ridley see the field? Why is Danny Woodhead a non-factor this year? Why is Tom Brady so bad at throwing the deep ball (unless he has Randy Moss on the other side Brady is not even close to connecting with receivers down field - see the Taylor Price play versus Steelers)? There are so many questions.
Is Belichick trying things out and not worrying about losing one lowly regular season game? Does he remember last year when the Pats smoked the Jets only to have the favor returned in a much bigger game and realize that regular season games are fuel for the playoffs?
The Patriots completely dismantled the Steelers a year ago in Pittsburgh. Brady spiked the ball at the end zone crowd and taunted them, which I very much enjoyed. So, maybe this is just one of those swings of the competitive and/or karma pendulum.
We all know that this defense is not overpowering. Last season they made clutch plays down the stretch and the offense was so good that it didn't matter. This year the offense is still very good and has a running game that has looked dominant at times.
Why Do the Patriots Refuse To Use the Running Game?
Why is old and recently injured Kevin Faulk in this game? Belichick has never been one to let the past dictate the present when it came to on-field decisions. I was convinced this was a golden parachute year for Faulk. He's earned it a la Troy Brown a few years back. Keep him on the PUP and let him collect a paycheck for another year.
I would prefer to see Woodhead or Ridley getting those touches. It is entirely possible that there are things at work here that I don't know about. Maybe Ridley had a bad week of practice. Maybe certain guys are banged up. Maybe Belichick is saving the big guns and great gameplans for the games that matter most.
Or maybe he has taken on too much. Remember when we had coordinators?
The Days of Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel Are Long Gone
Belichick seems to have been burned one too many times by the poaching of his staff by other NFL teams. Perhaps this is why he doesn't formally name coordinators anymore, although I suppose Bill O'Brien has risen to this role. Was Belichick at his best as the overseer and game situation manager?
The Pats two losses were both partially at the hands of decisions that Belichick made, like the decision not to challenge the Gronkowski non-TD call that would have saved two crucial minutes of game clock.
Just a quick aside, if the NFL is reviewing all scoring plays automatically, then shouldn't they also be reviewing all potential scores? Points are at stake either way and it seems illogical and under-inclusive to only review a play that was called a touchdown and not one that was mistakenly not called a touchdown. Under that approach, you are only potentially taking points off the board and I know the NFL hates that.
The biggest issue facing this team is not the defense. Come December, the defense will be serviceable as it is nearly every year in Belichick's tenure.
The Biggest Issue for the Patriots Is the Offense's Inability To Score in Big Games
Ultimately, we are talking about three games, those three playoff losses starting with the Super Bowl loss to the Giants. That is not a huge sample size. I would even consider throwing out the 2009 playoff loss to the Ravens because the offense had lost half it's heart and soul with the Wes Welker injury the prior week.
Regardless, we do not have enough evidence to draw a valid conclusion. All we can reasonably say is that the offense has not come up big when it mattered most in recent years.
Is it lack of a running game? Lack of play calling creativity? Infatuation with Tom Brady's gorgeous passes? This is the definitive issue for this team. Will the offense show up in the playoffs? Will Belichick and Brady return to form as the big game guys?
The Patriots have not won a playoff game in their last three attempts. Let's hope the fourth time is the charm.
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