By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots dropped their third game of the 2012 season by losing on a last second field goal to the Baltimore Ravens 31-30 Sunday night in Baltimore. The loss, dumping the Pats to 1-2 puts the team below .500 for the first time since opening week of the 2003 season.
The loss brought to light some problems that have been plaguing the Patriots for the past several years, notably the inability to close out close games, total absence of pressure on the quarterback and spotty secondary play.
While the Patriots defense played outstanding for the first two weeks, both Tennessee and Arizona hardly have what can be called prolific offenses. Baltimore on the other hand is much different. Gone are the three yards and a cloud of dust Ravens. They’ve added a vastly improved up-tempo passing attack to go along with a stellar ground game with Ray Rice. The result was Baltimore shredded New England on defense.
Where’s The Pass Rush?-
Bottom line for Sunday is this; no sacks, no QB hits against Joe Flacco. That is unacceptable in the pass happy NFL, never mind against a team that wasn’t dinking and dunking but taking deep shots down the field all game.
If you give most any QB in the league today too much time, they will find someone open and Flacco had all day to throw. The Patriots tried to rush only their four down linemen and they were basically dominated across the board by the Baltimore OL. Worse, when the Patriots put their light “NASCAR” package in, Flacco recognized it, audibled and the Ravens ran right at it and Rice started to gain big chunks of yardage.
This was something I pointed out last week that was worrisome as Rice is as valuable in the passing game as the running game. One thing that has been troublesome the past two weeks is the Patriots have been virtually pressure-free on the QB yet seem very reluctant to blitz. Sunday they blitzed Flacco of only 5 times, with only one, a Brandon Spikes blitz that forced Flacco to throw early resulting in an incompletion.
Contrast this to the pressure Baltimore brought on Tom Brady in the 4th quarter. The Ravens dialed it up and the result was Brady was rushed throwing even the quick routes. He was even bowled over on a hand-off in the back field.
All of the close losses in the past two seasons have a familiar theme. The Patriots can’t pressure the QB, give up huge chunks of yardage in the 4th quarter and too many points to hold on. Chandler Jones will be fine, people must remember that he along with Dont’a Hightower are rookies and will take time to find a consistent game in the NFL. Jones has shown that he can play in the league and will be a valuable piece off the edge. But the rest of the line has to step up.
Something has to change, and if that means not sitting back passively and dictating the pace for a change rather than hunkering down in two-deep zones, than they must adapt, if you have to live with the occasional big play then so be it. Which brings us to this Sunday….
Buffalo Offers Similar Outlook-
The Bills have a similar threat with Fred Jackson who should return this week after being injured in Week 1. Jackson, like Rice has had big games against the Patriots, averaging over 5 yards per carry and having 10 of his 93 career carries go for 10 yards or more. He is also a good pass receiver out of the backfield.
Ryan Fitzpatrick like Flacco has moments of brilliance followed by head scratching inconsistency. But in the first game between the two teams last season with a healthy Jackson, Fitzpatrick riddled the Patriots secondary.
Buffalo’s OL has played outstanding thus far this season, giving up only 1 sack and that was a dropped ball by Fitzpatrick. If the Patriots are to have any success on defense it will have to come from the front seven. Where will the pass rush come from on Sunday?
Eric Frenz wrote an outstanding piece on just this subject on Monday night for B/R. If the front four can’t get the job done, then the Patriots are going to have to blitz to get pressure on the QB, we all saw what happened Sunday and what happened last season in Buffalo.
The NFL being a copycat league, watch Buffalo try to take advantage of the Patriots sub-packages by running the ball on them as well until they can stop them from doing so. The front seven, so good the first two weeks, will have to step up their game in what is becoming an early season, must-win for the Patriots.
Secondary Reverts to 2011 Form-
After two impressive games to start the season, the secondary play took a step back against Baltimore. Devin McCourty, played well for three quarters but was targeted in the 4th quarter and got flagged for a big pass interference call inside the Patriots 10 yard line.
Kyle Arrington fared little better, struggling in coverage as was Sterling Moore, and tackling was shoddy at times as well most especially on the Dennis Pitta touchdown right before the half. But all the blame can’t be shouldered by the secondary, with no pass rush and Flacco having all day to throw, they can only hold up so long before coverage breaks down.
Ras-I Dowling has become the forgotten man of the secondary, playing very few snaps the past two games. While it’s not considered injury related, it must be assumed that he is out of favor with the coaching staff. It might be time to re-address this, by giving Dowling more snaps at corner, they could move Arrington into the slot where he is more comfortable anyway. Arrington is also an effective blitzer from the slot, something the team could sorely use right now.
Buffalo will provide some matchup headaches from the Patriots perspective this weekend, much like the Ravens did. If the team wants a different result, their planning and execution will have to be much better.