Sometimes, a person outside of the New England Patriots’ organization can only assign so much blame from game film.
When a wide receiver is left wide open, you can guess who was at fault, but oftentimes, there are so many moving parts that it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who is to blame. Well, unless a player is subsequently benched. And that player is making $40 million guaranteed over the next five seasons.
That’s what happened Sunday in the Patriots’ 33-30 loss to the Carolina Panthers, when cornerback Stephon Gilmore wasn’t part of New England’s base defense coming out of halftime. Eric Rowe replaced him in a two-cornerback set.
Gilmore’s absence was short-lived, however. Rowe reinjured his groin, and the veteran was thrust back into the starting spot. So, what led to Gilmore’s benching?
The Patriots left receivers wide open four times during their loss to the Panthers due to communication issues. They allowed 120 yards and two touchdowns on those plays. Without them, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton throws for less than 200 yards with a touchdown and interception, and it’s a whole different ballgame.
Here’s what went wrong on three of those four plays.
SECOND QUARTER, 9:49, FIRST-AND-10
The play began with Gilmore, in yellow, unaware of who to cover. He began moving over to his left, where Rowe was set to line up in the slot.
Gilmore, in yellow, then moved over to the other side of the field, where the tight end, Ed Dickson, was uncovered.Safety Devin McCourty, in red, motioned for Gilmore to cover running back Christian McCaffrey, in white. All the while, linebacker Kyle Van Noy appeared to be covering running back Fozzy Whittaker (blue arrow).
As soon as Gilmore, in yellow, got to McCaffrey, in white, the running back went in motion.
Gilmore, in yellow, started to follow McCaffrey.
Gilmore then stopped and started motioning for someone, though it’s unclear who, to cover McCaffrey.
Right before the snap, McCourty and Gilmore both booked it to the other side of the field. Van Noy also shifted his focus away from Whittaker and on to McCaffrey.
As the ball was snapped, Gilmore, McCourty, Van Noy and linebacker Elandon Roberts, in green, all tracked McCaffrey, leaving Whittaker, in orange, and Dickson, in pink, wide open. Newton hit Whittaker for a 28-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
It’s difficult to assign direct blame on this play. Ideally, Gilmore immediately would track McCaffrey back across the field, McCourty wouldn’t have to slide over and Van Noy would keep his attention on Whittaker. It’s unclear what Roberts’ assignment on the play was.
If either McCourty or Gilmore manned their post on the defensive right side of the field, Whittaker doesn’t score a touchdown. Whittaker also likely wouldn’t have scored if Roberts or Van Noy had kept track of him.
The Patriots did none of that, instead focusing four players on McCaffrey and none on two wide open targets. Touchdown.
SECOND QUARTER, 1:14, THIRD-AND-9
The play started off with Malcolm Butler covering Damiere Byrd, in aqua, Rowe on Kelvin Benjamin, in red, Gilmore on Devin Funchess, in yellow, and McCourty on McCaffrey, in white.
Here were all of the moving parts when the ball was snapped.
McCourty, in white, continued covering McCaffrey, while Butler, aqua, shifted over to Funchess, who became the inner-most receiver. Rowe, in red, moved over to Byrd, who ran another crossing route. Gilmore, yellow, the outside cornerback, also continued to run across the field, though it’s unclear if he thought he was covering Funchess or Byrd. Benjamin, in red, cut outside.
Gilmore continued running next to Rowe, while Benjamin broke outside. Duron Harmon, the free safety, saw Benjamin wide open and started breaking towards him.
Here’s how open Benjamin was when he made the 43-yard grab. He was stopped by Harmon before getting to the end zone, but his reception set up the next play the list.
Since Butler and Rowe switched targets based on their routes, it appears Gilmore should have shifted his focus to the receiver running an outside route.
SECOND QUARTER, :31, SECOND-AND-6
Here’s who we have on this play: Gilmore in yellow, McCourty in white, Rowe in red and Butler in aqua.
Funchess started going in motion, so Rowe followed him across the field, indicating man coverage.
As Funchess came across the field, Gilmore, in yellow, tapped on his helmet, appearing to communicate that he would take Funchess.
Gilmore lined up across from Funchess while McCourty was across from Byrd. McCourty appeared to motion to Rowe to cover the tight end, Dickson. While Rowe and McCourty were talking, Gilmore appeared to point to Dickson. Neither Rowe nor McCourty saw this.
So, what happened when the ball was snapped? Gilmore and Rowe both covered Dickson and McCourty took on Byrd. That left Funchess sprinting down the field uncovered.
Rowe adjusted too late, and Funchess scored on a 10-yard reception.
The defense then got a tongue-lashing from defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
Once again, it’s unclear why Gilmore didn’t continue to cover Funchess. Even if the defensive backs were supposed to adjust based on routes, then Gilmore, the outside cornerback, still should cover Funchess, who ran a deep out.
This was the Panthers’ final offensive play before the half. Gilmore was benched after the half for the one play in which Rowe reinjured his groin.
Here are other notes from our film review:
— The final uncovered play appeared to come in zone coverage, though it’s difficult to tell based on the TV tape. Jonathan Jones, Patrick Chung and Butler all were in the area on a 39-yard catch by Benjamin.
— Rowe had tackling issues before going down with the injury. He allowed first downs on two missed tackles.
— Gilmore also extended drives with two costly illegal use of hands penalties.
— Running back Mike Gillislee ran with more power than we saw in the first three weeks of the season and had probably his best game as a Patriot.
— Marquis Flowers filled in for Elandon Roberts after the linebacker left the game with an ankle injury. Flowers looked more comfortable in coverage than as a run defender.
— Linebacker Dont’a Hightower took on a reduced role as he returned from a knee injury. That probably was smart, since Hightower also didn’t play any preseason games.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images
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