BALTIMORE -- Vince Wilfork felt like the New England Patriots' defense let down the offense in Sunday's 31-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, and it's hard to argue with that point. But the offense shouldn't be completely exonerated.
There were opportunities to close things out in the fourth quarter, and the disappointing results lead us to the following conclusion: The Josh McDaniels-coordinated attack is still finding its identity, caught somewhere between what it once was and what McDaniels hopes it will become.
Finding that sweet spot between a spread attack that airs it out (think 2007-2011) and a hard-nosed approach that can run the ball in critical situations (what McDaniels hopes to instill) has been more challenging than anticipated. One can sense some internal stress as the process unfolds.
The final two drives Sunday night tell the story. In those "got to have it" situations, when one truly finds out the identity of an offense, what did we see?
The Patriots couldn't run the ball -- a Danny Woodhead rush for a loss of 4 yards contributed to killing the drive that followed a big fourth-down stop on defense. On the second got-to-have-it drive, there were rushes of 1, 3 and 1 yards. Not enough forward momentum.
So the Patriots were forced to go to the air, what they've done best in recent years, but the execution was surprisingly shoddy in critical situations.
On the first got-to-have-it drive, on second-and-14, a quick pass to receiver Deion Branch was stopped for no gain when receiver Wes Welker couldn't execute his block to spring the play, then an incomplete pass on third-and-14 followed when quarterback Tom Brady was moved out of the pocket by pressure coming up the middle.
On the ensuing drive, the lack of forward momentum provided by the running game ultimately set up a second-and-9 in which Brady, operating out of the shotgun, was sacked on a Ravens five-man blitz. Brady didn't have a chance on the play, nor did he on third-and-16 when the Ravens rushed only four but overloaded the offensive right side and forced a quick throw.
Running game in critical situations. A big disappointment.
Passing game in critical situations. Also a big disappointment.
And therein is the middle ground the Patriots' offense currently finds itself when the game has hung in the balance the past two weeks. They want to be something they aren't at this point, yet when they fall back on what they were, they aren't always executing in that area either.
The Patriots' modus operandi under Bill Belichick has been to master situational football and the critical situations, but the Patriots haven't passed that test the past two weeks. One might say the search for an offensive identity is a primary contributing factor.
McDaniels has worked hard to get the ground game going, and there have been promising signs at times. The season opener at Tennessee, for example, couldn't have gone much better.
On Sunday night in Baltimore, the opening drive of the third quarter was particularly impressive. Of 12 plays on that touchdown march, seven were rushes. They went for 5, 3, 1, 3, 3, 6 and 3 yards -- nothing sensational, except for the final two Woodhead rushes, which produced a touchdown against a stingy red-zone defense. Overall, it was enough to keep the Ravens' defense honest and give Brady the best chance to stay clean as the Patriots' offensive line works its way through some early issues.
But on the next drive, the running game let the Patriots down.
On first-and-goal from the 4, Stevan Ridley was stopped for a 4-yard loss, then Woodhead went for no gain. The Patriots settled for a field goal to go up 30-21.
Looking back, it's fair to ask if the Patriots took their best shot in that situation because every handoff is one fewer pass that Brady is throwing, which remains the team's most lethal weapon.
That's the push and pull of what appears to be unfolding on offense.
McDaniels has a vision of where he wants to take things, and it includes a heavier emphasis on the running game than we've seen in recent years. Already in 2012, we've seen more compact formations, less spread, less shotgun. The Patriots remained committed to it Sunday, finishing with 77 yards on 34 carries (2.3-yard average).
In one respect, McDaniels can make a strong case for adopting such an approach. With more of a one-sided attack that skewed heavier to the pass in recent years, the Patriots have not exactly been masters at closing out games. So maybe developing more of a running mentality gets them to that point.
It didn't Sunday night in Baltimore, highlighting an offense caught somewhere between what it once was and what its coordinator hopes it might become.