From Top to Bottom, a Bad Day for Patriots
By Kevin Duffy
NASHVILLE -- There are games when the prolific Patriots offense bails out its much-maligned defense.
Believe it or not, there are also games when the inverse happens and the New England defense sets the tone.
Then there’s whatever we just witnessed in Nashville.
Those clunkers aren’t common for the Patriots, and they certainly don’t happen at this point in the season.
This is when the Pats are typically peaking. Prior to Sunday’s 34-10 abomination, the Pats were 25-1 since 2014 in games played between Weeks 5 and 10.
With an upcoming bye, the Pats have an extra week to ponder what exactly went wrong.
The short answer: Everything.
Here are the grades from the Patriots’ worst outing of the season:
Tom Brady was flustered from the beginning.
He threw behind James White on a slant route to start the second drive. On a third-and-4 in the second quarter, Brady looked for White on an out route but tossed the ball into the ground near the sideline. He wasn’t under pressure. It’s unclear if Brady deliberately threw the ball away, or if the pass was that far off target.
Brady forced the ball to Josh Gordon with little efficiency. He hooked up with Gordon for a 44-yard gain on the game’s first third down. Overall, he completed just 4-of-12 throws to his talented wideout.
On a third-and-4 late in the third quarter, Brady heaved up a deep ball for a well-covered Gordon. It was a similar play to the fourth-and-1 conversion against the Bears, when Gordon made an acrobatic, game-changing catch. This time, there was nothing there.
Brady had Chris Hogan open on the play because Malcolm Butler slipped as Hogan broke his route into a slant.
For the first time in a while, Brady looked indecisive and outmatched.
RUNNING BACK: D
The Patriots were constantly in long-yardage situations, and their ineptitude on the ground was a major reason why.
After a two-game absence, rookie Sony Michel looked to be establishing a nice rhythm near the end of the first quarter, as he carried for seven yards and five yards on consecutive plays. On the latter, he drove Malcolm Butler backward to gain three yards after contact.
The rest of his afternoon was uninspiring. Michel slammed the ground in frustration after Wesley Woodyard wrapped him up following a 6-yard gain in the fourth quarter. The play was perfectly blocked, and Michel knew it could have been a long gain.
James White was surprisingly ineffective. White was leveled by Kenny Vaccaro on the first snap and his afternoon didn’t get much better from there. His 26 yards from scrimmage was by far his worst output of the year.
WIDE RECEIVER: C-minus
Julian Edelman showed up.
And that was about it.
As great as Gordon can be, he’s still inconsistent. He committed a drop on a third-down slant route that ended the Patriots’ opening possession, forcing them to settle for a field goal.
He slipped on a comeback route along the sideline later in the first quarter. On the ensuing third down, Brady looked for him again, but Gordon couldn’t get any separation against Titans cornerback Adoree Jackson.
The numbers look fine for Gordon. He wasn’t close to his best self, though.
Chris Hogan technically was targeted once. The Patriots didn’t exploit the Malcolm Butler matchup. They hardly even acknowledged it.
Phillip Dorsett should have a case for additional playing time going forward.
TIGHT END: F
Without Rob Gronkowski, this position produced next-to-nothing.
Dwayne Allen allowed a pressure, which led to an incompletion, on a second-and-9 at the beginning of the second half.
On the next possession, Titans rookie Sharif Finch smoked Allen off the edge and pressured Brady into another throwaway.
Allen was injured two plays later when he collided with Trent Brown. He returned for a few plays before exiting the game for good.
His replacement, Jacob Hollister, didn’t contribute much. Hollister dropped a pass on a third-and-4 slant route. He did make a nice fingertip grab for a 17-yard gain.
OFFENSIVE LINE: D
The Patriots offensive line didn’t help itself on early downs, so it had to deal with Tennessee’s creative pressures on second and third down.
Titans linebacker Jayon Brown beat Trent Brown off the edge for a third-down sack at the start of the second half.
Later in the third quarter, Brady took a shot from Woodyard when his protection broke down. The Pats ran play-action, attempting to sell a zone-blocking scheme. As the linemen moved laterally in the same direction, Titans defensive tackle Darius Kilgo slipped between Brown and Joe Thuney for the initial pressure. Brady evaded him, then absorbed a big hit from Woodyard.
LaAdrian Waddle replaced Trent Brown (back) in the late third quarter. Waddle got roasted by Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo, who stuffed White in the backfield for a five-yard loss.
Marcus Cannon’s false start turned a fourth-and-1 into a fourth-and-6. That was a massive miscue.
DEFENSIVE LINE: D
Dion Lewis gained 35 yards on his first six carries.
Danny Shelton got pancaked on the first play on Tennessee’s second drive, a 12-yard Lewis run.
Trey Flowers, Keionta Davis, and Deatrich Wise all struggled with containment at different times. Flowers got moved inside easily on an 11-yard Lewis run. He also failed to contain when Derrick Henry bounced outside for a 10-yard gain a few plays later.
Likewise, Davis couldn’t set the edge on David Fluellen’s 13-yard scamper.
The Pats rarely pressured Marcus Mariota, whose ability to throw on the move -- often without setting his feet -- made a major difference.
On a crucial third-and-14 at the end of the first half, Flowers took on two blockers on the interior, Adrian Clayborn looped around Flowers, and Kyle Van Noy blitzed in the same lane. Mariota sensed Van Noy and Clayborn coming, and he moved to his left and connected with Corey Davis for a 20-yard gain. It was perhaps the biggest play of the afternoon.
This unit struggled right out of the gate.
Dont’a Hightower got wiped out on Lewis’ 12-yard run. Kyle Van Noy struggled to get off a block on Henry’s 10-yard run in the first quarter. Van Noy offered little resistance on Henry’s 10-yard touchdown run.
There was some positive: Hightower blasted through the line, discarded tight end Luke Stocker, and blew up Lewis for a five-yard loss.
Elandon Roberts recorded his first sack of the year. He whiffed on an opportunity to stuff Henry at the goal line late in the first half, though.
DEFENSIVE BACK: D-minus
Stephon Gilmore played his first substandard game of the season and the entire defense suffered.
Gilmore, who had been operating at an All-Pro level, was regularly torched by Corey Davis. He was flagged for two pass interferences on the second series, although the latter was declined because Davis still corralled an over-the-shoulder 23-yard touchdown catch.
Patrick Chung was in man coverage against tight end Jonnu Smith for Tennessee’s first touchdown. On the next series, Chung uncharacteristically missed a tackle against Smith along the sideline, allowing the athletic tight end to gain 20 yards after the catch.
Devin McCourty got beat on third down by tight end Anthony Firsker during the Titans’ end-of-half touchdown drive.
The Titans had their way with the Pats when facing zone coverage, too. Davis found space over the middle for a 27-yard gain in the second half.
Jason McCourty played well against Titans receiver Tajae Sharpe, for what it’s worth.
SPECIAL TEAMS: F
New England’s kick coverage has been awful.
They’re perennially at the top of the league in that category, but they currently rank fourth-worst, allowing 26.4 yards per return.
Darius Jennings’ 58-yard runback on the opening kickoff energized the Titans.
Tennessee also started two drives in Patriots territory after punt returns, resulting in 10 points. The second was an odd sequence, as the Patriots’ coverage got thrown out of whack when Adoree Jackson muffed the punt. Matthew Slater and Nicholas Grigsby got tangled up with one another. Jackson returned it 12 yards and five more were tacked on because of a Chris Hogan penalty for ineligible player downfield.
The Titans began the drive at the New England 37-yard line and quickly scored to grab a 24-10 halftime lead.
The defensive game plan was fine. There was no evidence to suggest that Gilmore would have struggled so badly against Davis. And the Patriots were wise to force Mariota to beat them with his arm. He’s an inconsistent passer. But like Blake Bortles in Week 2, he had one of the best days of his career.
Up front, the Patriots could have tried different ways to generate pressure. They never rattled Mariota.
The Pats fell behind 17-3 almost immediately, so their offensive gameplan probably was adjusted. They were one-dimensional on Sunday, and the one dimension wasn’t even good.
The reverse pass to Brady on a critical third down was a peculiar play call. McDaniels drew up a beautiful call on an early fourth-and-short, using Cordarrelle Patterson to freeze the defense with jet-sweep action and throwing in the opposite direction to James White.
Other than that, this was not McDaniels’ best stuff.