Patriots need more than Tom Brady
New England must prove it can win when its marquee quarterback is held in check
Lions played like the game meant something. Watching the Lions, it was obvious that this game meant more to them than just getting better and having a dress rehearsal in Week 3 of the preseason. It reminded me of a preseason game we had with the Carolina Panthers in 2004, the season after we beat them in the Super Bowl. It was the third preseason game that year, and the Panthers really wanted to prove a point because they felt like they should have won the Super Bowl.
There were a lot of fights, a lot of pushing and shoving. The difference was that it wasn't just one side doing the pushing. We wanted to prove to them that it wasn't a surprise to us that we won the Super Bowl, so we pushed back. There was almost a fight on every play and it was probably the most heated preseason game I had ever been involved with.
Last year, the Patriots beat the Lions on Thanksgiving in a game in which the Lions didn't have quarterback Matthew Stafford, so they felt like they weren't at full strength and had something to prove this time around.
They are led by Ndamukong Suh, who sets the tone, and I'm just curious if anyone was thinking the same thing I was, hoping that the refs didn't break up the fight between Suh and Logan Mankins. What I wouldn't pay to see those two in a steel-cage match.
Patriots defense kept off balance by up-tempo offense. It was evident that the Lions had some game-plan specific goals, specifically how they came out in up-tempo mode. That negated some of the multiple pressures the Patriots showed in the first two preseason games.
When an offense goes hurry-up, it forces the defense to show its hand because whoever is calling the defense wants to make sure guys have the opportunity to line up properly and be on the same page. That can limit more complicated defensive calls. That was something the Patriots hadn't seen in the first two preseason games, and at times they looked tired. It looked like the tempo caught them off guard.
Tom Brady takes a beating. It was obvious that the Lions wanted to hit Brady early. The past two weeks we've touched on some questions with the interior of the Patriots' offensive line, and starting right guard Dan Connolly suffered an ankle injury on the team's first kickoff return (he plays in the wedge) and I think that hurt him. He never really had a chance. He hadn't even been in an offensive huddle, already had a sore ankle and then he turns around and Ndamukong Suh is waiting for him. That's not going to be good. So Connolly goes down, Rich Ohrnberger comes in and now you're drastically overmatched at the position.
The other point is that sometimes teams might view Brady as untouchable -- if you're within one step, you shouldn't put a hand on him. Suh obviously doesn't fall into that category. If he's one step away from the quarterback, any quarterback -- whether it's the MVP, a practice-squad player or a third-stringer -- he's going to put a hit on him. Suh may not put his helmet into your chest, but he's going to push you to the ground.
That's what he did to Brady and those types of hits add up as you get deeper into the game. The overall pressure and hits on Brady were impressive considering the Lions were without Kyle Vanden Bosch, who is just as important to the defense as Suh.
Chad Ochocinco and his transition into the offense. When you're in the Patriots' precision offense, there is a right way to run a play and a wrong way. An example of this came on the first-quarter play in which Ochocinco was called for offensive pass interference.
The Patriots run a play in which the tight end is lined up on one side and is the primary target, running across the offensive formation. The receiver on the opposite side of the primary target must time his route, and as soon as the ball is caught on the opposite side, he must be in position to block the defender at the right moment. It's a coordinated effort with the quarterback and the primary target on the opposite side; you run your route in unison, and as the ball is caught, you're in position to either block or be "in the way."
Ochocinco got there too early, he was in the way, and he attempted to throw a block as Rob Gronkowski caught the ball. That's what the officials saw. Watching at home, it might have looked like Ochocinco was blown up, but overall it was a case where the timing to run the play hasn't been perfected yet.
A contrast came later in the first half, on a second-and-24 play, when Wes Welker ran a crossing route and Danny Woodhead came out of the backfield and was positioned to place a block on the defender who was ready to make the tackle. That's the timing required. Brady, Welker and Woodhead have it. Brady and Ochocinco are still working on it.
Ochocinco not losing his individuality. We've heard Ochocinco talk about being part of the Patriot Way, and we touched on the difficulty of picking up the timing of the offense, but there is one other thing in play here. I hope Ochocinco doesn't lose his individuality. In a game like Saturday night's, I think his presence can help. The Patriots need his type of attitude, that tough confidence he has. He is the type of player who can speak up and be a voice other than Tom Brady's to possibly get guys going.
One hopes that coming to New England and conforming to a team-first attitude doesn't lessen Ochocinco's ability to be a vocal leader. With running back Kevin Faulk looking more likely to land on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, meaning he won't be out there for a while, the Patriots need someone like Ochocinco.
Jerod Mayo and communication. On the 9-yard touchdown catch by Lions running back Aaron Brown at the end of the second quarter, we saw Mayo positioned on the outside and expecting help on the inside, but no one was there. Mayo looked to safety Patrick Chung after the play and the two had an on-field "chat."
That type of breakdown is on the middle linebacker, a position I'm very familiar with. There are various adjustments that can be made, and when Mayo made the commitment to play outside leverage, the adjustments have to be communicated to the safeties and other linebackers.
Was Jerod Mayo wrong? Was Patrick Chung wrong? It doesn't matter because it's the linebacker's job to coordinate the entire defense, and when there is a problem like that, the linebacker has to hold himself accountable.
Also, you don't want to see any bickering on the field. That's the type of thing where you come to the sideline after the extra point and get everyone together, then talk it over. How many times do you see Mayo make a mental error? Not very often, but it happens to the best of them.
Big receivers hurt the Patriots. When you look at the Lions' roster, the size of their receivers stands out. Calvin Johnson is 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, while Maurice Stovall is 6-5, 220. The Patriots had some trouble dealing with both their size and athleticism. When you look ahead and see Plaxico Burress and Brandon Marshall on the schedule, those could be potential problems down the road.
Needs to be more than Brady. I know this is just the third preseason game, but I'm going to look at it critically. This loss reminds me of last year's Browns game and the Jets playoff loss in the sense that this team needs to learn to win when Tom Brady doesn't play well. If this team only wins when Brady throws for more than 300 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, they're setting themselves up for another playoff disappointment.
I'd love to see this team win with Brady throwing for fewer than 150 yards and someone else at the interview podium at the end of the game. I think that's what the Patriots need to reach that next level, they need to get away from relying on one player performing so well to win. You almost get the sense that players expect Brady to carry them week in and week out.
You don't want to become a team where you play your best football with a lead. So in a sense, having a week like this in the preseason is probably just what the Patriots needed. Going into Cleveland last year, they needed that game to bring them back to earth.
So this could be something that coach Bill Belichick is smiling about behind the scenes, seeing it as a learning tool to show the players that they haven't arrived yet. The more time they have to learn the lesson, the better the chances of them sensing it coming in the future and doing something about it.