If the Bucs employed my two-year-old at kicker, last week’s “run-it-back” defensive gameplan would have failed. Should have failed. The Patriots didn’t have time to fix the fairly large-scale issues on a short week, so they went with “same but try harder” strategy and eeked one out. But that was lucky.
The missed assignments, the wide-open receivers, the lack of a consistent pass rush, the poor tackling (Hightower even went for the up high knockout hit instead of wrapping up), all of these things were still there. Nearly two and ½ months from the beginning of training camp and the Patriots Bend But Don’t Break Defense is broken.
Some of the fixes can come from practiced areas: problems of effort, communication breakdowns, and poor tackling technique. But with the elite play and professionalism that we’ve seen from the players over their careers, it’s my belief that this is becoming a breakdown in play-calling, specifically on 3rd down and specifically in the 4th quarter.
3rd downs in the 4th quarter are the most important plays for any defense, those are the plays that silence opposing crowds, flip fields and end games. And through 5 games, it seems this is the albatross around the Patriots defensive coaching staff’s neck.
First the good news, the Patriots do a good job of consistently stopping the run on 3rd and short, in large part to the excellent discipline up front in these situations.
Here’s the bad news, in the 4th quarter the Patriots defense has faced 16 3rd downs in highly competitive games (one score or less). Their opponents moved the chains 8 times or 50% of the time, that’s bad. But even worse on those 8 3rd downs, the Pats faced an average of 4.65 yards, but were gashed for an average of 17.5 yards on these conversions. That’s what a schematic breakdown looks like. Because teams see 3rd and 5 yards and instead of merely getting to the 1st down marker, they are getting field-shifting, game-changing passing plays.
I’d like to take a look at the most critical 3rd down from the Bucs game that I think underscores the fly in the beard. The play that made me throw my remote, pound my IPA and light a Pall Mall — You know the one I’m talking about.
With 10:40 left in the 4th Quarter, Ryan Allen put the Bucs on the 3-yard line. After a near safety and throw away by Winston, and a well defensed 8-yard check down, the Bucs are at 3rd and 2 on their 11 yard line. Given the field position that would have resulted with a stop, this is the play that should have effectively ended the game. This is the play that maybe couldn’t have saved Nick Folk‘s job, but could have at least saved his dignity (he missed the Bunny on this drive). This is the play that would have left me feeling good about the resiliency of this team.
But nope. Desean Jackson rips 41 yards off a slant.
Patricia has three players playing man over on the left hand side bunch formation (ignore them they don’t matter). Hightower is spying the QB (a necessity with Winston), Butler is initially lined up 10 yards off the line over Desean Jackson and Harmon is offering single high safety help over the top about 15 yards off the LOS. Before the snap, both Butler and Harmon are moving backwards, assuming that Jackson is going to run a deep route to open up the underneath and Hightower and Van Noy are moving forwards trying to take away the underneath.
They rush four and Van Noy tries to get his hands up in the passing lane, never mind that for anyone who has seen the Patriots play, this is entirely predictable. The Bucs pick up the rush easily and Winston gets the ball out of his hand quicker than Cam Newton can shove his foot in his mouth. But the real problem with this play is that with Hightower doing double duty of spying and shading towards the bunch formation, Van Noy moving towards the line of scrimmage to get into the passing lane and Butler and Harmon moving backwards, there is 20 yard gap in the middle of the defense for the fastest player on the Bucs to crease.
Jackson runs an easy slant and Butler (now 16 yards off the line of scrimmage, 10 yards from Jackson and on his hills) and Harmon (23 yards off) can only try to stop the bleeding, which of course they fail to do by taking bad tackling angles.
This is how a 3rd and 2 becomes a 41 yard gain. And the fact that both Harmon and Butler are moving backwards tips that this is scheme, practiced and situational.
My theoretical question is: what WR and QB wouldn’t see this? Blake Bortles? Ben Roethlisberger‘s corpse? The Patriots are often reluctant to send blitzes, but if you’re not going to get sudden pressure and you’re not going to press at the line, how do you expect to stop a 3rd and 2? Given the down, distance, time of game, field position and score, a quick slant was a pretty likely possibility and the Patriots just overthought it… or maybe they didn’t, which is more scary? I don’t know.
We’re onto the next game and all of that, but just because they got a win with basically the same gameplan, shouldn’t throw us off the scent. Change is coming to the playcalling because too often 3rd and 2s in the 4th Quarter lead very quickly to 1st and Goal. My hope is that the egghead, the NSA director (Big Ern) and the GOAT were doing some self-evaluation. Because this shit ain’t working.