Buffalo 16 – New England 0.
So, there was some expectation that New England might struggle during Tom Brady’s exile. He was, after all, being replaced by two quarterbacks who had never thrown passes in the NFL before. In spite of this fairly embarrassing result, the Patriots weathered Brady’s absence with a 3-1 record – certainly acceptable under the circumstances.
Where Was the Balance?
Still there was something more than a little bizarre about the game. Not only did the Patriots never find any kind of balance on offense, they never even tried.
This isn’t entirely unusual in New England. Frequently, with Brady under center and facing a team with a significant run defense, it’s not at all uncommon to see Bill Belichick to abandon the running game out of the gate and attack with his devastating short passing game. However, this was an animal of an entirely different color.
Opening drive of the game. The Patriots, after a penalty (which wiped out a 90 yard pass play) and two running plays sat at third-and-five on their own 14. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett hands off to LeGarrette Blount up the middle and then the Pats punted.
Well, that’s a little un-Belichick-like, but OK. It’s a young quarterback backed up deep in his own end against a very aggressive defense. Whatever. Play it safe and let the defense set the tone.
They punt and Buffalo drives 65 yards for a touchdown in 12 plays and 7:11 of clock time. Buffalo 7 – New England 0.
Now it’s New England’s second drive. After a short completion and a shorter running play, the Patriots are third-and-two from their own 22. They run again – James White loses a yard off right tackle – and New England punts again.
Hmm. Well, Brissett did hurt his thumb last week. Maybe he can’t really throw the ball, and he’s only back there to keep Julian Edelman from playing quarterback.
Buffalo takes the punt and moved 52 yards on 10 plays and kicked a field goal. Buffalo 10 – New England 0.
New England’s third drive. They open with a first down on a short pass – all of Brissett’s passes so far have been short. Then two more running plays and a false start made it third-and-fifteen on the New England 30. James White gains 4 yards on another run and the Patriots punt again (and Buffalo moves in for yet another field goal).
When the teams jogged off the field at halftime (with Buffalo up 13-0), New England’s Jacoby Brissett had thrown all of three passes. The Patriots had run on all five of their third-down opportunities, failing on all of them (although Brissett did drop back on one third-and-eleven, but pulled the ball down and ran with it).
This is more than just conservative. Brissett had thrown 19 passes in the previous game against Houston, so it wasn’t that Belichick didn’t trust him to know where to go with the ball. He has to be hurt worse than the Patriots had let on (also not uncommon for New England).
So, the Patriots come back out in the second half, trailing by only two scores, and start throwing the ball all over the place. Brissett is now chucking the ball downfield. He’s zipping the ball on the intermediate routes. He throws the ball 24 times in the second half. He is also sacked twice and scrambles three other times. From the 13:06 mark of the third quarter till the first snap of the fourth quarter, the Patriots dialed up 13 straight passing plays.
Although they never trailed by more than two scores, they called only six running plays the entire second half. They thus abandoned the offensive stable that they worked so hard to establish in the first half in favor of a scatter-armed rookie (Jacoby was only 14 for 24 for just 130 yards in the second half).
Or the Urgency?
When the Patriots set up on their own 24, trailing 16-0, with 7:02 left in the game they, then, returned to their running game. They called three running plays during a leisurely 12-play drive that consumed 4:16 of the games last 7 minutes. It was exactly the kind of drive you might expect from New England if they were the team ahead 16-0.
The Patriots are always a little mysterious, but however they were expecting things to play out last Sunday, they didn’t.
The Panthers have lost three of their first four games this season. Common to all three loses was the lack of the running attack. Denver and Minnesota stuffed the running game with excellent defenses. The Falcons put points on the board in such rapid succession that Carolina couldn’t stay with its run. Cam Newton (when healthy) is a dangerous passer and a significant downfield threat. But Carolina’s passing attack can’t sustain its offense. They are built to run the ball and struggle when they can’t.
A substantial aspect of that running game is quarterback Newton. Removing Cam’s legs from the equation will remove much of the charisma of the offense. And yet, quarterbacks run at considerable risk. Newton left last Sunday’s game to undergo concussion protocol, even though he seemed unfazed by the hit.
It is a reality of the NFL today. (And I’m not saying this is a bad thing!) But, you don’t have to knock the quarterback out of the game to knock him out of the game, anymore.