The Patriots’ six-game win streak is over after a 34-10 thumping at the hands of the Tennessee Titans on Sunday afternoon.
Tennessee controlled play from the jump, starting with a 58-yard return on the opening kickoff by Titans returner Darius Jennings and led the game from start to finish.
We’ll get to all the issues on both sides of the ball, but mainly, the Patriots looked like a team that was ready for a vacation as they enter the bye week.
Offensively, the Patriots were out of sync throughout with breakdowns in multiple areas including at the quarterback positions.
Defensively, a secondary that had its best game of the season against the Packers last week reversed course in Nashville against an inferior group of receivers, and the run defense, which seemingly turned a corner after the Detroit game, was an issue again this week.
All of those struggles point back to coaching, which was perplexing throughout, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
With that said, let’s soak in the negativity as we examine ten things we learned from the Patriots’ third loss of the season:
1. Tom Brady’s Performance Cause For Concern?
Last week following the win against Green Bay, I wrote about Tom Brady’s struggles this season with downfield accuracy. He has missed more open receivers this season than his MVP campaign a year ago and hasn’t looked confident in the pocket for most of the season. In some respects, the issues with Brady are about the things going on around him, and we’ll get to those, but the Pats quarterback has to shoulder some of the blame as well.
On Sunday, Brady’s 51.2 completion percentage was his lowest output of the season, and there were both errant throws and some poor decisions as well. On one play in the second half, Brady had wide receiver Chris Hogan wide open after Hogan beat Malcolm Butler on a double-move, and the three-time MVP forced the ball to Julian Edelman instead of finding Hogan. Incomplete. Although decision making hasn’t been a significant issue for Brady this season, he seemed to be forcing the ball at times to Gordon and Edelman as he probed for openings in the Tennessee secondary.
From a big-picture standpoint, the main takeaway from this perspective with Brady was that he was out of rhythm throughout, and when Brady gets out of synch in a game like that, things can snowball for him into a bad performance. Moving forward, the Patriots need an in-rhythm Tom Brady.
2. Josh McDaniels’ Playing Calling and Game Plan Deserve Criticism
There were a few key areas where I felt McDaniels missed the mark in this game: the game plan was way too reliant on throws downfield, the Patriots didn’t spread the wealth in the passing game, and the running backs weren’t utilized enough (we’ll get to that later).
Let’s start with the first point, all week long Bill Belichick told us that the Titans defense didn’t give up big plays. On game day, the Patriots offense relied on deep targets mostly to Josh Gordon, and they were unsuccessful on the whole. The weakness of this Titans pass defense was their linebackers, yet the Patriots tested the perimeter of the defense and the Tennessee cornerbacks.
The second point can be summed up by the box score where 32 of Tom Brady’s 41 pass attempts went to three players: Josh Gordon (12 targets), Julian Edelman (12 targets), and James White (eight targets). The lack of success on those targets aside, the Patriots are at their best when Tom Brady is spreading the ball around to the open receiver. It’s one of Brady’s best attributes, and it keeps the defense on its heels. On Sunday, the Pats quarterback and offensive coordinator didn’t do enough to keep the Titans defense guessing, and they keyed on a few players to shut down the New England offense.
Whenever the Patriots put up a stinker on offense, McDaniels comes under fire, and rightfully so, but on the whole, he’s one of the best offensive play callers in football which makes you think this game was more of an anomaly than a significant concern.
3. Titans Pass Rush Dominant From Start to Finish
When Tom Brady is out of rhythm, you can often point to the pressure up front. The Titans mixed in a few blitzes but mostly rushed four or sometimes even three defenders, which led to some coverage pressures.
Although the Titans won some one-on-one battles, there were also far too many communication breakdowns that led to sacks or hits on Brady.
On Logan Ryan’s second-quarter sack, the Titans blitzed Ryan from the slot with a twist on the inside to open a rushing lane for Ryan up the middle. Both left guard Joe Thuney and running back James White went to the defensive linemen slanting on the rush with neither player accounting for Ryan. Brady stepped up in the pocket, and Ryan came through untouched for the sack.
The Titans put James White in a few blitz pickup situations that didn’t go White’s way this afternoon.
Tennessee linebacker Wesley Woodyard had two sacks in the game, one of which came in the first quarter when White tried to pick up the blitz, but the Titans linebacker simply ran through him to get to Brady.
As is the case for any offense, the Patriots can only move the football when the guys up front keep Tom Brady clean, and we saw that play out to a tee on Sunday.
4. Where Did the Running Backs Go?
Entering Sunday, the Patriots’ running backs accumulated 1,470 yards from scrimmage this season, the second-most in the NFL. However, this week, the Pats running backs managed only 58 combined yards, by far the groups lowest output of the season (previous low: 105, Week 8). In its current form, the Patriots offense needs to get production from James White, Sony Michel, and even Cordarrelle Patterson out of the backfield both through the air and on the ground. Those three players, especially White, are three of their most dynamic offensive weapons and can make things happen with the ball in their hands. That group tallying only 22 touches as a trio is inexcusable for how dangerous and productive they’ve been this season. The lack of a running game or passing threat out of the backfield cost the Patriots mightily today.
5. After Impressive Run, Stephon Gilmore Struggles Against the Titans’ Corey Davis
Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore has been fantastic this season, but second-year wideout Corey Davis got the best of him on Sunday. In all, Davis caught five passes for 90 yards and a touchdown on Gilmore in coverage, and Gilmore was called for two pass interference penalties. Some of that had to do with the types of coverages the Patriots played; they put Gilmore on an island with Davis often deploying the other safety as a spy on Marcus Mariota, and they also played some zone to account for Mariota’s legs. However, these are the kinds of matchups that Gilmore’s won all season. Gilmore’s struggles were a microcosm for how the day went for the Pats secondary as they struggled to keep pace with a below-average group of receivers.
6. Patriots Run Defense Takes a Step Back in Loss
The Patriots run defense has done its job since a disastrous performance in Week 3 against Detroit, but this game resembled that one at times in this regard. The Pats bottled up old friend Dion Lewis for the most part as Lewis managed only 2.9 yards per rush on his 20 carries, but the power run game with Derrick Henry gave New England problems. Although their philosophy has shifted a bit this season, the Titans want to get downhill on the ground with a power running game that utilizes mostly zone blocking schemes under offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur.
Henry’s touchdown to ice the game in the fourth quarter summed up the issues in one run for the Patriots run defense on Sunday. Henry’s in the wildcat in the Tennessee backfield. He takes the direct snap, and the Pats defense is sealed out of the hole with multiple Titans blockers kicking Pats defenders out of the way, and the Pats defense gets bunched up at the point of attack. Henry walks in untouched for a touchdown from ten yards out, something you never want to see.
The Pats run defense had stretches in this game where they got on the right track, but Henry closed the game out on the ground in the fourth quarter, and it was too easy for the Titans running back.
7. The Good and Bad With Josh Gordon
As the Patriots continue to integrate Josh Gordon into the offense, we saw again on Sunday some of the side effects of incorporating a new receiver mid-season. Brady was 4-12 for 81 yards targeting Gordon against the Titans, which is a decent yardage output, but a horrible completion percentage. Although Brady’s lack of efficiency speaks to the type of receiver Gordon is, the Pats quarterback is only completing 53 percent of his throws aimed at his new wideout, and there were times in this game where it felt like Brady was forcing Gordon the football.
On a positive note, Gordon did average 20.3 yards per reception with a 44-yard reception and a 23-yard catch in this one.
On the Patriots’ longest play from scrimmage, they got Gordon open from the slot on a seam route. The big wideout ran vertically up the middle of the Titans zone defense, and thanks to that zone coverage, got a matchup with a linebacker 15 yards downfield, a matchup that Gordon will always win.
The Patriots’ attempts to get Gordon on the same page with Brady affected their performance on Sunday in Tennessee, but we continue to see glimpses of what this duo can become.
8. Patriots Lose Field Position Battle, Give Up Another Big Kickoff Return
The game started with a 58-yard kickoff return that set up Tennessee’s first score which established a theme throughout early on in the game. The Patriots’ average starting field position on offense was their own 24-yard line compared to an average start of their own 34-yard line for Tennessee. In the first half, those numbers were even more lopsided with the Titans’ average start being their own 44 and the Pats at a similar number of their own 23-yard line. In many ways, the field position battle summed up the game; the Titans offense was able to drive the ball down the field which helped their defense whereas the total opposite was true for the Patriots. Also, the kickoff coverage for the Patriots continues to be a concern as it has been all season.
9. Patriots’ Tackling Another Sore Spot in Loss
On initial viewing, I had the Patriots with four missed tackles in Tennessee on Sunday. Although there weren’t a ton of misses, the Pats played with poor leverage for most of the day on defense. In other words, it wasn’t missed tackles, but instead taking poor angles or over-committing to ball carriers that led to extra yards for the Tennessee offense after the catch or after contact. On the whole, the Patriots have been solid in the tackling department, but Sunday wasn’t their best effort. Most notably, Patriots safety Patrick Chung missed two tackles, including a whiff on the Titans’ Jonnu Smith in the first quarter that led to a 29-yard catch and run for the tight end.
10. Should Phillip Dorsett Surpass Chris Hogan on the Wide Receiver Depth Chart?
Moving forward, one position battle that deserves some more attention is the fight for the third wide receiver spot behind Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman. Tom Brady has lost his trust in Chris Hogan this season. Hogan’s had some bad drops, and there was a moment on Sunday as the Patriots were driving to get points before the half where Hogan didn’t run his route the right way. On the flip side, every time Dorsett gets into the game he gets open and is catching passes. Dorsett fell down the depth chart when the team acquired Gordon, but was off to a good start this season, and Brady has hit nine passes in a row to Dorsett on his last nine targets. After the bye week, look for Dorsett to start cutting into Hogan’s playing time.