Loss shows Pats' D not close to championship caliber

Mike Petraglia
November 14, 2016 - 2:59 am

The Patriots secondary got burned three times for touchdowns by Doug Baldwin Sunday night. (David Butler II/USA Today Sports)

FOXBORO - If Sunday night taught us anything about these Patriots, they have a lot of work to do in the post-Jamie Collins era. A lot.

And if you thought rookie Elandon Roberts could just step in and take the place of one of the best playmakers this defense has had for the last three years, Sunday night was a big wake-up call.

As much as people will point to the breakdown in the closing seconds by the Patriots' goal-line offense and their lack of execution, it was the defense that was busted all night. They had one good series, a badly-need three-and-out to start the second half after giving up an inexcusable touchdown with six seconds left before the half.

After escaping with a 31-24 consolation win for what happened in Super Bowl XLIX, Richard Sherman suggested strongly that these two might see each other again in Houston on Feb. 5. If that's the case, the Patriots better bring the defensive hammer that Seattle brought Sunday night, a hammer that nearly pounded Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady into submission.

"That was a big hit for sure," Gronkowski said of Earl Thomas' shot in the second quarter. "Probably one of the hardest I've got hit in my career for sure. [It was] by a good player, a good fast player who's like a missile. It was a good, clean hit; nothing against it. I just took it and it just knocked the wind out of me a little bit, that's all."

That's what the Patriots need.

There were good signs Sunday. The Patriots had stopped the Seahawks on their first two trips in the red zone in the first half. But unfortunately, that trend did not continue as Seattle finished with three touchdowns on seven trips inside the 20. The real problem with that is that Seattle had seven chances and gained 420 yards on the night.

"I think it's everything," Belichick said. "Defensively, we made some stops in the red area but certainly missed a lot of opportunities to get off the field on third-down, gave up some big plays. Kicking game, same thing. There's certainly a lot of things that could've been better on special teams, not that it was all bad, it was competitive. But there's just things we could do better, need to do better, need to coach better, need to play better."

Look, everyone knows Collins was not playing anywhere close to his level of the previous two years. That was obvious from film and the last game in Buffalo cemented that in the minds of the decision-makers in Foxboro.

But that doesn't mean the Patriots are better by subtraction, either.

The Patriots started Roberts and Dont'a Hightower as their true linebackers with hybrid Rob Ninkovich floating back and forth between the line of scrimmage and the second level. But as great as Hightower is (and he was again Sunday night), he isn't a defensive back.

The real problem Sunday night - and the problem that positively, absolutely has to be addressed - is on the back end. They need to be a lot better on the last line of defense quickly, or they run the risk of turning into the 2011 Patriots. Remember them?

They made the Super Bowl in spite of a secondary that could've, should've lost to the Ravens in the AFC championship at Gillette. That was the year that Belichick had finally seen enough. That experience precipated Aqib Talib in the middle of the 2012 season and gave us Darrelle Revis in 2014.

Malcolm Butler came on the scene in 2014 as a rookie and made a name for himself. He's the best corner and arguably the best tackler in the secondary. But the rest of the corner group needs to pick it up.

But Sunday night, what we saw was a secondary that was lost way too much, losing Doug Baldwin with six seconds left in the first half and letting him get free for an easy touchdown as Russell Wilson was running around trying desperately not to get sacked and preserve a field goal chance.

"[There's] just frustration from the defensive standpoint because we were one, two stops from winning that game," safety Devin McCourty said. "We've just got to do more to help the offense. They're moving the ball and putting points on the board. We've just got to hold up a couple of times and play better in the red area. A couple of stops I think would have helped us.

"It's tough. I mean, we know they're going to throw the ball down the field. It's very similar to when we played them the last time. They're able to run, but we did a good job up front against the run, but we knew they have very good deep downfield players, so I think they just did a better job of completing some of those balls against us today. We were aware, but those man-to-man situations are tough. Russell Wilson throws some good balls down there, so it's tough."

In fairness, as Bill Belichick pointed out several times in his postgame presser, Wilson is a premier quarterback. He's a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. He made plays that most NFL defenses would have trouble stopping.

But the Patriots aren't supposed to be most NFL defenses. They're supposed to be a lot better than what they showed, especially on the back end. They came in as the second-best scoring defense in the NFL, even better than the Seahawks, who were ranked third.

Before Sunday night, the best quarterback they had faced was Andy Dalton. Cincinnati could've easily beaten the Patriots had a couple of calls gone for the Bengals like they went for Seattle. Dalton and the Bengals receivers were open that day, too. But that was the day Hightower saved the bacon of the secondary. There was no such bailout Sunday night. The Patriots have faced Tyrod Taylor twice, Carson Palmer once, Ryan Tannehill once, Cleveland once and the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger.

Sunday night showed what a hot quarterback could do to this defense in the playoffs.

The Patriots have been going back and forth, trying to make up their mind who their best third corner is. Is it Eric Rowe (a healthy scratch Sunday)? Is it Justin Coleman? Coleman had an awful night while Rowe has been inconsistent. Logan Ryan looked lost on the touchdown before halftime as Patrick Chung was left alone on the receiver.

"I think each individual play has its own criteria to talk about and tomorrow to correct and address," Belichick said. "I mean they run a lot of different plays. We run a lot of different defenses. They match up differently. I mean it's certainly not all one thing but in total we obviously need to do a better job than what we're doing. That's all the way across the board, all the areas of the defense; front, coverage, run defense, turnovers, you name it. It's not all bad but it needs to be better."

The Patriots lost to a Seahawks team, 31-24, because Seattle had the better, more physical and psychology tough defense. Seattle was the team on a short week that traveled across the country and beat the Tom Brady and the mighty Patriots offense on New England's home turf.

That should be more than enough to send the wake-up call this defense needs.