Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 4: Patriots vs. Panthers

Cam Newton

Things to consider while settling into full blown, five alarm panic mode:

*There’s no sense in trying to polish the turd that is this Patriots defense right now. It’s not bad. It’s atrociously awful. Historically bad. I won’t turn a Knee Jerk Reaction into a Deep Dive Into Analytics Reaction by getting all caught up in the numbers (because I’ll probably do that between now and the Tampa game on Thursday), but they confirm what your eyes and your soul are telling you: The the Patriots D is a nightmarish hellscape out of Bill Belichick’s worst bad-acid freak out.

*Their passer rating against right now is 116.5. Meaning they’ve turned Alex Smith, Drew Brees, Deshaun Watson and even this version of Cam Newton into last year’s Matt Ryan, the league MVP. Opposing quarterbacks are having their way to the tune of 8.6 Net Yards per Attempt. To put that in perspective, the second worst defense is Cleveland’s and their NY/A is 7.7. And the Pats are giving up 60 yards more per game than any other in football.

*Worse, a defense who’s church is built upon the rock of preventing big chunk plays and forcing teams to keep moving the chains, is giving up big chunk plays at a record pace. Carolina had eight “explosive” plays, meaning passes of 25 yards or more, rushes of 10 or more. That gives this D 24 of them through four games. They only gave up 59 all last season.

*I mean, look at Cam Newton’s game logs and that’s all you need to know. He’s throwing with the accuracy of a Stormtrooper. But against this squad he was 14-for-16 in the first half. That’s the kind of thing that was happening during the Dark Ages of 2009, when the secondary was all Darius Butler, Jonathan Wilhite, Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs. Surrendering 34 points to Matt Schaub and losing to Kyle Orton. Or that 2011 unit that let Rex Grossman put up 27 points on them and allowed Matt frickin’ Moore a passer rating of 98.6, a number he’d last achieved when his mom took his temperature. Right now the Patriots could tear up their Field Turf, lay down grass and not mow it for a week and it would be more effective as slowing down visiting offenses than what they’re doing right now.

*It certainly is not lack of ability. The secondary is the most talented, deepest and healthiest unit on the roster next to the quarterbacks. So it has to be what everyone was talking about in the locker room: the communication. Which is a Bruckheimerian disaster to an extent we’ve never seen here. I won’t pretend to be able to tell where the breakdowns are coming from, but it’s impossible not to see Stephon Gilmore constantly around when coverage falls apart. Or not around, since he’s usually vacating the area where someone comes wide open. And a bunch of times in this one, he’d be calling a coverage, motioning, hand gesturing, and then at the snap he and the guy he was signaling to would take the same man and leave someone wide open. Particularly with Eric Rowe and Devin McCourty, whom I assume know the assignments. It’s like those two are Han and Leia and Gilmore is Chewie, who somehow can communicate with them, but for some reason still can’t form human words. (I know that’s two Star Wars references already. Shut up. I’m in no mood.)

*For examples, late in the first half, the Panthers came out in a bunch formation to Gilmore’s side. Now this is a thing teams practice constantly. And even though there are different ways to approach it, Steve Spagnuolo of the Giants preaches keeping it simple. Treat it like a game of 3-on-3 basketball. You can take your side of the bunch or take a man and then switch when they cross, but just call it out. But on this one, Gilmore and Rowe took the same man, left Kelvin Benjamin more alone than Matt Damon in The Martian and it took a perfect form tackle on a 245 lb receiver by Duron Harmon to keep Carolina from scoring. For two plays. Which is how long it took the comedy team of Gilmore & Rowe to leave Devin Funchess wide open in the end zone for a 17-13 lead.

*Or take the first Carolina TD. Gilmore was in man vs. Christian McCaffery split wide. As McCaffrey motioned across the formation, Gilmore stayed with him. Ordinarily I’d give him the benefit of the doubt that he was supposed to follow as opposed to passing him off to Malcolm Butler or whomever on that side. But the coaching staff would never design a defense with an entire flank undefended, which is what happened. A little backside screen to Fozzy Whittaker and he had nothing but clear road ahead for the score. It looked like the Panthers designed the play specifically because they knew Gilmore would bite on the motion.

*I saw a lot of guys chirping on Twitter about how bogus those Two Hands to the Face penalties were. And while I agree it’s frustrating how cheap those calls were, that’s the NFL in 2017. Pass defense is a speed trap in which you’re getting a ticket for going 1 MPH over the limit and your insurance will go up. It just happened that Gilmore got pulled over on two critical 3rd down stops, but they’ve made it clear it’s an Enforcement Zone, so that’s on him. My beef is with the bogus Holding on Pat Chung (also negating a 3rd down stop) on a goddamned run play. Why would anyone want to hold the guy who’s trying to block him? Trump isn’t right about much, but he’s spot on about the over officiating in football.

*I don’t want to make Gilmore the fall guy, because he had plenty of help turning a Panthers offense that had three touchdowns on the season into the ’99 Rams. For most of the first three quarters the tackling was awful. Rowe got trucked by McCaffery on a catch that maybe should’ve gotten three yards but produced a 1st down. You had the formerly very stoppable Ed Dickson getting inside leverage on Butler and McCourty for big catches up the seam. Once again they couldn’t slow down a running quarterback, not even one who’s not supposed to be running any more. Newton broke contain repeatedly, once when Cassius Marsh couldn’t set the edge and another on Kyle Van Noy. McCourty let himself get road gradered by Newton on a reverse to Damiere Byrd. And as the game wore on and the Pats defense was reacting to the spread field and went with more subpackages, Newton took advantage of the numbers advantage in the box and gashed them with runs up the middle. That last touchdown where he took it right up the gut with Van Noy on his ass will go over in the film session today like a snuff film.

*Even the few times things went right looked like a mistake to me. On Butler’s interception, he left Funchess all alone on the LOS to double Byrd with Rowe trailing him. I’m assuming Butler has the outside guy (Funchess) on that one, though I’m not sure. Fortunately Newton ignored the wide open guy for the one in bracket coverage. But that was before he realized he could treat this defense like Hef treated his female party guests. He would not repeat the mistake.

*Just because I’m so miserable about all this, I’ll try to find diamonds in this dogshit. Dont’a Hightower didn’t get in until the defense had already dropped their weapons and were in full retreat, but he had a positive effect. That spin move he put on Amini Silatolu for the sack was not only right out of my Homecoming Dance playbook, it kept the Patriots in the game. Deatrich Wise, Jr. continues to flash as an interior pass rusher. If it weren’t for that Dollar Store penalty on Gilmore, it probably would have won the game. Trey Flowers had a critical forced fumble, or it would’ve been a blowout. But I’m reaching here.


*So let’s talk about the offense to lighten the mood. If I haven’t mentioned it before, Tom Brady is wicked good. You can give up big plays, spend an entire game defending 2nd and short situations, commit dopey penalties, and as long as you make a couple of stops in the last 10 minutes, he can win it for you. It’s no way to live. And it feeds all the AntiPata forces who say they’ve never been a good team, they’re just lucky to have great QB. But he covers a lot of flaws.

*He’s also been getting killed. In the FPS game that has been this season, his health bar has been getting down into the 10% range, mostly because he’s been throwing deep more than at any time in his career, therefore holding onto it longer and taking hits. So it looked like Josh McDaniels adjusted with a lot of short, quick controlled passes to the backs.

*Still, when he did go to his receivers and Gronk, he was vintage. That touchdown he threw to Chris Hogan in the back of the end zone was a laser-guided missile strike right over Mike Adams’ shoulder. He hit Danny Amendola with basically the same ball to tie the game, only this time he had to survey the field back and forth like a lawn sprinkler, going through his progressions until someone came open. And I’ll credit Joe Thuney for helping Nate Solder out on Kawaan Short while the rest of the O-line was single blocking a four man rush to give Brady the time he had to have. What a goddamned waste of yet more great drives in clutch moments.

*Every week James White’s importance to the McOffense goes up, and this was no exception. Two years ago it seemed like he went down on first contact every time. Now he almost never does. Brady threw it two him three yards shy of a 1st down they needed, with like three Panthers between him and the sticks, and he picked it up the way Kevin Faulk always did. Carolina assigned a spy defender to him every time he was in the backfield. Had to defend him like a wide receiver when he’s out wide, like that Dagger route combo he ran with Gronk, where he stops to tie up a defender and the inside guy runs a seam that was good for 24 yards. White is doing it all. I just wish he could translate for the defensive backs.

*This Week’s Applicable Movie Quote: “Can we panic now?” – Ron Weasley, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

*I don’t know what the solution is. Other than to just assign a receiver to Gilmore and assume he can lock him down the way Darrelle Revis did, then fill everything else in behind him. Or find some unemployed former Rutgers guy and plug him in. Or hope that Hightower’s presence and the improvement of your Wises and Flowerses will produce a pass rush. Or that Belichick uses the Doctor Strange powers he got from the Tibetan monks to bend space-time and make it all right again.

*All I do know is this: There should be a rush on every available Tampa Bay Bucs player in every Fantasy league in the land. The Patriots are behind the Bills and Jets in the division. And that everything I thought I knew is wrong.