Commentary

Mess rehearsal humbles Brady, Pats

Updated: August 23, 2013, 10:20 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

DETROIT -- New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady got right to the point in assessing the damage after an embarrassing 40-9 preseason loss to the Detroit Lions on Thursday night.

"We had a couple good weeks against Tampa and Philly, we had some good practices, then we have a week like this when you figure out that we aren't anywhere where we need to be," he said. "If we are going to kick off in two weeks, we are going to have to play a helluva lot better than this. That's a good lesson for all of us; I don't care who you are. It's the NFL. It's a very humbling game, and if you don't bring it every single night, every week, you get your butt kicked."

[+] EnlargeZach Sudfeld
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesZach Sudfeld fumbled to end the Patriots' opening drive against the Lions.

That's what happened to the Patriots at Ford Field. The third preseason game is often referred to as the dress rehearsal, but as one witty follower on Twitter opined, this quickly turned into a "mess" rehearsal. It was, in many ways, reminiscent of the third preseason game in 2011 when the Patriots traveled to Detroit and were pummeled 34-10. They went on to win 13 regular-season games that year and play in the Super Bowl, which reminds us not to overreact to preseason results.

But they also can't just be ignored, and it doesn't take an advanced degree in football-ology to dissect what went wrong.

Mainly, the Patriots couldn't hold on to the ball. Fumbles by rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld and running backs Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen, all of which were recovered by the Lions, came within the first 16 minutes of the game.

Add in a Brady interception on a slant to rookie receiver Aaron Dobson early in the second quarter, and that's no recipe for winning football.

"We didn't do anything in the first half other than turn the ball over," said Brady, who finished 16-of-24 for 185 yards and was sacked twice in playing the entire first half (totaling 46 overall snaps, including penalties). "You're not going to score points in the NFL unless you string together a bunch of big plays. We would make one or two, but then we would shoot ourselves in the foot. We have to figure out how to correct that in a couple weeks, or it's the same result."

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Chances are they will, and this will turn out to be a valuable learning experience for several of the younger players the Patriots will be counting on this season. They are learning on the fly in many ways, and a crash-and-burn performance can be a powerful teacher of what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

No question, it won't be pretty when Bill Belichick breaks down this film, especially since he will be seeing some of the plays for the first time, as he was fully engaged coaching the defensive linemen on the sideline while the offense was on the field.

"Obviously when you turn the ball over four times in the [first 16 minutes], it will knock you out in most any game, and it practically knocked us out of this one," he said afterward.

The only reason the Patriots were still in it was because of the first-unit defense, which was without defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (he was seen going through extra stretching on his legs before the game) and employed starting linebacker Jerod Mayo only in its dime package (six defensive backs). The defense held the Calvin Johnson-less Lions to 2-of-9 on third-down conversions in the first half, and three of the holds came at the New England 5-, 19- and 13-yard lines because of the turnovers.

Belichick often refers to those situations as "sudden change" because the defense has to react quickly after a miscue by the Patriots' offense. If not for the strong work of the defense in that area, it could have been a lot worse than what it was: 16-3 Lions at the half.

"Any time, boom, you're off the field, and then bang, you have to be on the field, you have to go play football. That's our job," said defensive end Rob Ninkovich (six tackles, half-sack), who looked like the Patriots' best defender Thursday night. "You look at the last couple of games in the preseason, [and] we haven't had that situation come up.

"I think it just comes down to knowing what part of the field you're on; in the red zone, it's a little bit tighter down there, so everything has to be tighter."

While the Patriots' defense tightened its grip, the offense dropped the ball. Three times. That's uncharacteristic for a team that has been near the top of the NFL in turnover differential in recent years.

Afterward, the word "lesson" came up in interviews with several players.

"The one thing you learn from a game like this is that you can't just expect to come in and have a great game unless you're 100 percent in all three phases," Ninkovich said. "It opens our eyes up to realize that."

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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