Are we witnessing the fall of the New England Patriots? That’s the question we’ve got to be asking ourselves after watching them struggle to a Week 1 defeat against the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots have only lost their opening game once since the 2001 season (Tom Brady’s first), which was also the only time the quarterback and Bill Belichick have ever started 0-2 together.
But are we jumping the gun or is there a real cause for concern?
At 37 years old, we are inevitably approaching the decline of Brady – whether we like to admit it or not. The future Hall-of-Famer cannot keep going forever and there have been signs over the past few seasons that he is already reaching the beginning of the end of his career.
Brady’s accuracy rating (completion percentage adjusting for dropped passes) while under pressure over the past four seasons has steadily declined from a league-leading 70.7% in 2010 to just 57.6% last season, a mark that ranked 28th in the NFL. His decisions while under pressure have also been getting more questionable, with a touchdown-to-interception ratio going from 6:1, to 4:1, 2:1 and 1:1 over the same period. Brady is objectively performing worse over time when under pressure.
The reason that’s potentially a far bigger issue this season than previously is because the Patriots offensive line is suddenly starting to crack and look leaky. Long-time coach of that unit, Dante Scarnecchia, is no longer with the team after crafting impressive units regardless of turnover for years. This might be one of the most underappreciated losses in the NFL. Logan Mankins was moved on to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers via trade and, while he has declined recently, it remains a significant void to fill.
The result of that turnover was the Patriots allowing a league-high 25 total pressures against the Dolphins (three sacks, six knockdowns and 16 hurries from 60 passing plays). And that only counts the pressure that the five linemen were responsible for surrendering. Brady was pressured on 41.7% of his dropbacks and was accurate on just 44.4% of those plays.
Maybe the line will right itself if given a bit of time to gel but if it doesn’t then Brady is going to struggle to counteract its influence. Brady has consistently struggled in the past more than most quarterbacks when pressured up the middle (as opposed to pressure coming around the tackles), and against Miami 15 of those 25 instances were created by interior players.
The good news for New England is that they have a healthy Rob Gronkowski back in the fold, and he is good enough on his own to have a massive impact on the entire offense. The bad news is Brady was leaning on him so much against Miami that he was throwing some ill-advised passes in Gronk’s direction. With a weapon as dominant as Gronkowski, there is a fine line between giving him the chance to make a play and forcing a ball in where it doesn’t belong, risking a big negative play for the chance to make a positive one. Brady wasn’t punished with an interception, although that won’t be the case if he continues to do that all year.
Brady and Belichick have been the foundation for greatness in New England over more than a decade and, while the former has been the catalyst for success on offense, his head coach has brought a Midas touch to the defense. Yet, just as Brady’s greatness may be beginning to fade, so Belichick’s unquestioned genius on the other side of the ball suddenly looks more questionable.
The Patriots have been characterised in recent years by the ability to switch between 3-4 and 4-3 defensive fronts, riding the wave of multiple defenses effortlessly. Occasionally, certain players would be a better fit for one scheme or the other, but rarely did any look completely unfit for the job they were tasked with. Against the Dolphins, however, Belichick went full old-school 3-4 up front, complete with two-gapping defensive ends. The only problem is that those ends weren’t players like Ty Warren, they were guys like Chandler Jones. Though he may never be the most dynamic pass-rusher in the world, at 265lbs Jones is giving up around 35lbs to a guy like Warren and, more importantly, the offensive linemen he is trying to stack and shed across two gaps to make plays.
Only Vince Wilfork among the linemen is truly suited to a two-gap system anymore, and the reality is most of the league no longer employs two-gap schemes because the 300lb hulking linemen are thinner on the ground than they used to be.
To make matters worse, Darrelle Revis, brought in during the off-season and giving everybody ideas of lockdown-shadowing cornerback play, was employed as just a straight left corner, often in zone coverage. There was no fancy and clever defensive scheming to take advantage of what Revis can do when on an island; he was just used as any other cornerback within a conventional defensive alignment. That doesn’t ring with the hallmarks of defensive genius, and looks more like a guy painting by numbers, just reading from a card and installing the correct part in the correct place.
Don’t get me wrong, there is still talent on the New England roster, and their coaches didn’t become idiots overnight – this will still be a good team whatever happens – but maybe we are seeing the beginning of the end. Maybe this is the season that New England is fighting just to be above .500 rather than striving for perfection. Maybe, perish the thought, this is the year somebody else wins the AFC East.
Words: Sam Monson/PFF
This article originally appeared in Issue IX of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE