Curran: Penalties, self-inflicted mistakes could sink Pats' season originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
It’s worth noting that just a month ago we were in the midst of a contrived and idiotic "quarterback controversy" here in New England.
So the good news on this Black Friday is that Mac Jones drove a stake through the heart of the Legion of Zappidians. Is Mac the Second Coming, the quarterback for now, the future and forever and ever? Cmon. Let’s just say he is (and has been) the least of the Patriots concerns.
But guess what’s back? Back again? Late-season peekaboo defense.
After seeing mostly Double and Triple A pitching for most of the season, the Patriots went to bat against a wily and capable No. 2 starter in Kirk Cousins. And they went down looking. Looking at the Vikings converting 8 for 15 on third down (7 for 10 in the first half) and the Vikings' three main aerial targets (Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, T.J. Hockenson) catch 23 of the 27 balls they were thrown for 243 yards and three touchdowns. Looking at each other wondering what they could have done differently to stop Justin Jefferson from catching 9 for 139 or if he just alien’d them.
Pressure makes diamonds. It also bursts pipes. And it’s not a stretch to think that, after weeks of seeing quarterbacks they could toy with and "meh" skill position players, the Patriots’ defense got stressed in ways it hasn’t been all season.
Despite the aforementioned numbers, it wasn’t an abject defensive failure. Look at the fine print and you see some really outstanding individual plays in the running game (Jahlani Tavai, Davon Godchaux, Carl Davis to name a few).
But there were third-down busts galore. Miscommunications. An almost total lack of pressure brought against a quarterback who’d been sacked seven times in his previous game. And, as is the custom in 2022, there were penalties.
A 15-yard facemask on Jonathan Jones on the Vikings' first touchdown drive. Defensive offside by Matt Judon on a third-and-12 that paved the way for a 37-yard third-and-7 completion to Jefferson on the next play and an eventual touchdown. Fifteen-yarders on Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant on a 14-play field goal drive that ended at the start of the fourth quarter. And -- on the next drive -- a running-into-the-punter penalty on Pierre Strong that extended the game-winning touchdown drive.
We wrote at length this week about the eye-popping penalty numbers.
They have 53 accepted penalties in the past eight games after drawing six for 55 against Minny. They lead the league in holding flags (20), have 25 pre-snap penalties, have been penalized 23 more times than their opponents and have been flagged 77 times (11 declined penalties).
In the past eight games they’ve had 30 negative plays offensively (not including kneeldowns), 26 sacks, five interceptions, four lost fumbles. That’s a total of 65 negative offensive plays. Add in the 53 penalties. That’s 118 negative plays in eight games. I figured it was overkill if I included the number of runs for no gain or one yard. There were a mess of those. Anyway, it’s preposterous! And yet, they are 5-3 in those games.
Which brings us back to the question of whether this is a "good" team or not. Against the Vikings, with a patchwork offensive line, the protection overall was really good (save for the sacks yielded late by Trent Brown and Cole Strange). Mac Jones was very good. Rhamondre Stevenson? Good. Hunter Henry and the receivers’ production? Good.
Preventable, self-inflicted mistakes and breakdowns. If they don’t fix it – and it doesn’t seem like a wave of the wand will make it go away - that will be the story of the 2022 Patriots season.
Tom E. Curran on what's ailing the Pats
And yet, four days after winning a game on special teams, that kickoff return touchdown loomed as the difference. Coverage breakdown? That’s new.
And the defense getting riddled and generating no pass rush? Also new.
The Patriots have good players on both sides of the ball. A lot of them. But they are situationally dumb too often (the clock management decisions by Jones and Henry heading into the half being shining examples). They’ve labored to get rhythm offensively thanks to the playcalling (last night notwithstanding). And they take oodles of penalties.
On one hand, you would say that stuff is fixable. But it’s not just a rash. It’s an infection. An infection of inconsistency that can show up just about anywhere on the patient, it seems.
The simple way to beat teams with more talent is to wait them out. Presume the mistakes are coming. The Patriots could do that against Zach Wilson and Sam Ehlinger and get by despite the breakdowns and negative plays they were committing. They can’t against teams like the Vikings, Bills, Bengals or Dolphins.
Preventable, self-inflicted mistakes and breakdowns. If they don’t fix it -- and it doesn’t seem like a wave of the wand will make it go away -- that will be the story of the 2022 Patriots season.