Monday, January 11, 2010
Patriots just weren't prepared
By Tedy Bruschi ESPNBoston.com
Five observations from the New England Patriots' 33-14 home playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens:
1. Not ready to play. It was extremely surprising to see the Patriots come out the way they did, because the one thing you'd think is that the team would be prepared. But there were mistakes happening in the first quarter that were key indicators of a team's not being ready. There were plenty of missed tackles and an obvious lack of intensity. The first play of the game, Ray Rice's 83-yard touchdown run, was one example. When you look at the best player on the defense, it's Vince Wilfork in the middle, and that's where the play went. A hard double-team came on Wilfork, pushing him outside to the tackle box area, and Rice found the hole where Wilfork would have been. He took it down the middle with a full head of steam to Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather, who had a chance to make the open-field tackle. But Rice was too elusive for him. On that one play, Rice not only showed his vision to find the hole but also his quickness to elude Meriweather and then the straight-line speed to outrun him to the end zone. Another key sign of not being ready to play was the kickoff return unit's letting the ball hit the ground after an early Ravens touchdown, with it landing between Darius Butler and Matthew Slater. There is no excuse for that.
The Patriots had no answer for Ray Rice and the Ravens' running game Sunday.
2. Physically dominated in running game. The biggest surprise in the game was that the Patriots were physically dominated on defense. As the game progressed, the Ravens showed the first play, Rice's big touchdown run, wasn't a fluke. Their running backs continually ate up yardage and it didn't matter whether it was to the left, right or middle. In the Patriots' 3-4 defensive scheme, one thing it comes down to is the defender versus the blocker in a one-on-one battle. You have to beat the man in front of you, but that was not happening along the entire front seven. Wilfork ended up settling down in the middle at the nose guard spot, but then on the ends, Jarvis Green and Mike Wright had difficulty holding up to constant double-teams from tight ends and extra linemen in bigger sets. Earlier in the year, we saw Bill Belichick make adjustments when there were obvious problems with the defense. One example was in Denver with the "Wild Horses" formation: He called a timeout during the first series and brought his signal-callers to the sidelines to give them adjustments; then the Pats stopped the drive. Against the Ravens, one of the adjustments was to move Wilfork to end and to try various line stunts in which the linemen would rip inside instead of two-gapping. They even sprinkled in some 4-3 looks. With those adjustments, it was a sign that Belichick recognized the problem and did his best to figure it out in the running game. But no adjustment he had worked Sunday. It didn't matter what lineup or what scheme was implemented; the Ravens were able to run the ball. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco finished 4-of-10 for 34 yards passing, but it wasn't because he was struggling. He didn't have to throw the ball.
3. Big Three strikes. Earlier in the week, in the breakdown of the game, the importance of stopping the Big Three -- Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed -- was discussed. It didn't take long for them to emerge as difference-makers in this game. Ray Lewis blitzed up the middle, shrugged off Laurence Maroney like he wasn't there, and sacked Tom Brady. After that, Lewis was all over the place for the rest of the game. Suggs beat Matt Light by using the freeze move, which is when the defensive lineman is rushing down the middle of an offensive lineman and gives him the illusion of a bull rush, stops before contact, "freezing" the lineman's feet, and then accelerates to a speed rush around the edge. Most defensive ends are quicker than most offensive tackles in terms of stopping and accelerating to full speed, and he beat Light around the corner for the sack, forced the fumble and made the recovery -- the trifecta. Meanwhile, Reed not only showed his range throughout the game, breaking up a third-down attempt by Brady, but he also got to the sideline for an interception on a deflection in which he lateraled to Chris Carr for a big return. When you're playing against the Ravens and their playmakers show up like that early in the game, you know it's going to be a battle.
4. Game resembled early-season Jets contest. This game had similarities to the Week 2 meeting between the Patriots and Jets. Brady didn't have Wes Welker in New York and ended up holding on to the ball a little longer. It took the receivers a little more time to get open and with that, the rush was able to get to Brady. Some early hits by Lewis and Suggs on Sunday made Brady more conscious that the pressure was coming. The way he looked against the Ravens was reminiscent of when he struggled against the Jets' defense, when he was also without Welker. The problem Brady had with his receivers is that they don't get the same type of separation that Welker gets, so defenders were closer and receivers weren't as open, and that led to more balls being contested and tipped in the air, which led to interceptions and incompletions.
5. Familiar questions arise again. Throughout the course of the year, two of the biggest questions were "Who would be the third receiver after Randy Moss and Welker?" and "How would the young defense perform?" Familiar problems arose again. First, with the loss of Welker, this offense isn't the same. Without Welker to be that easy completion for Brady or to command another double-team and open things up for others, you instead had a quarterback looking for answers and holding the ball longer. As for the young defense, it played well at times but looked like it was playing at regular-season tempo when it was supposed to be at playoff tempo. There is a certain way you play in the regular season, but once you get to the playoffs it's different, and you don't realize it's different until you have that experience. For the second-year players and rookies on defense, this was their first playoff experience. Meriweather might have had Rodney Harrison to lean on in 2007, but now he was there by himself as the leader of the secondary. This game can be taken as a learning experience for the entire defense, how the urgency steps up in the playoffs and the tempo is faster. Every play means more. One of the things mentioned in the breakdown was not being "that guy" and making that critical error in the biggest game of the year. The Patriots didn't have one person who was that guy. It was an entre team that didn't get it done.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss contributed to this report.