Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Finding a way (again)
EVER the consummate teammate, the perfectionist quarterback and the humble star, Tom Brady made a point during Sunday’s post-game press conference to nitpick the performance of his Patriots’ offense. He noted the need to take better advantage of opportunities, to communicate better on third down.
And to come up big, like New England’s defense did.
“Make some clutch plays like we did on defense,” Brady said when listing what his offense needs to do better. “That last stop they made really saved the game for us.”
There is some truth to that. After Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 53-yard field goal to tie the game, then another 53-yarder to take the lead with 3:12, the Patriots defense did indeed stop the Texans near midfield, enabling New England to hold on for a 34-31 win in Houston.
But to say that the Pats’ offense needs to do anything on the level of its defense is at this point really nothing more than a consummate, perfectionist, humble leader trying to breathe confidence into his teammates. Because at this point — and probably from this point forward — it’s Brady’s attack that will bear responsibility for taking this team as far as it will go.
This being early December, everything is pretty much as we’ve come to expect it from the Patriots. They’re 9-3, and can clinch the AFC East championship if they beat the Browns next week, and the Dolphins lose to the Steelers. They’re in control of the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, as co-holders of the conference’s second-best record.
And, almost as expected as the winning over the past half decade, they’re once again going to have to hope their offense is good enough to make up for the deficiencies of their defense.
That’s no slight against the effort put forth by the players on that side of the ball. It’s no slight against Bill Belichick’s job in assembling the talent, or defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s work in coaxing the most out of those assets, either. It’s simply a reflection on just how vulnerable that unit has become as the injuries have mounted and the replacement pieces have begun to be exposed.
At the start of the year it looked as though the Patriots had finally achieved a balance between offense and defense. They won a game when scoring only 13 points. Three times in the first five weeks they allowed 13 points or fewer. But then they lost Vince Wilfork. And Jerod Mayo. And Tommy Kelly. Steve Gregory missed time.
So did Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard. Kyle Arrington and Brandon Spikes both appear to be playing through something, and while guys like Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have performed admirably as plug-ins, and the Pats have pieced things together well enough to win four of their last five, the Texans on Sunday showed why it’s getting foolish to think New England’s defense could carry it to a victory next month.
A week after Denver ran at will — in part by design — Houston racked up 4.3 yards per carry, with backup Ben Tate rushing for three scores after the team had totaled just two running touchdowns the entire season. Too often the Patriots’ defensive front was pushed around, and gaping holes were left in the middle of the line, and the questions about New England’s 31st-ranked run defense only began to sound louder.
The Patriots have now allowed at least 100 rushing yards in eight straight games, and that’s a particularly problematic shortcoming considering another recent trend. For the fourth time in five games the Pats put themselves in an early hole while struggling to score offensively, heading to halftime down 17-7, and again harming themselves with big mistakes — this time taking the form of a long kick return, a Brady underthrown interception, and a sack that made too difficult a 55-yard field-goal attempt.
“We’re not doing a good enough job in any area,” Belichick said. “From the opening kickoff, from the defense, to the offense, none of it’s good enough. We need to do a better job coaching, better job preparing, better job executing.”
Fortunately for New England it has overcome its early season third-quarter struggles, and as has become its new mode of operation, it erased that deficit within seven minutes, thanks to a James Develin 1-yard run and a Shane Vereen 9-yard reception, and continued to move the ball pretty easily thereafter. But the early deficit and the depleted defense ultimately kept them from really ever seizing control of the contest.
After Vereen scored to put the Pats ahead 21-17, the Texans answered with an 81-yard march capped by a Case Keenum 5-yard bootleg. After LeGarrette Blount bullied it in from 7 yards to put the Patriots on top, 28-24, DeAndre Hopkins caught a 66-yard pass on the next play, and two snaps later Tate ran in from 10 yards out.
That put Houston ahead, 31-28, and after Gostkowski’s first bomb, New England’s defense — as Brady pointed out afterward — did get a stop. They forced three straight Keenum incompletions, getting the ball back to the offense, and Brady took advantage by getting his team into range for another booming boot from Gostkowski.
The defense thwarted the Texans again on the next series, so Brady wasn’t wrong. They came through in the clutch. But the fact of the matter is that for the Patriots to come away winners, the offense needed to score on all five of its second-half possessions. They needed to be near-perfect, or else the Texans might’ve snapped a nine-game losing streak.
Instead, it was the Patriots who ended a three-game road skid, winning in a familiar — and likely foretelling — fashion.
“We’ve got to find a way to win on the road, and fortunately this week we did it,” Belichick said. “The last three we were kind of in a similar situation to this and didn’t do it. We got a couple big stops defensively, we got a couple big drives offensively when we needed them at the end, we got a couple big kicks.”
“We found a way to pull it out,” Brady added, “and I think that’s the most important thing.”
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.