DETROIT — Everything made so much more sense in New England two short weeks ago.
The Patriots were coming off a 27-20 victory over the Houston Texans in which their defense looked markedly better than it had seven months prior in Super Bowl LII. Plus, the Detroit Lions lost to the New York Jets 48-17 just one night later.
Clearly Lions first-year head coach Matt Patricia, who officially served as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator from 2012 to 2017, was the root of any issue the team had with defending an opposing offense, right?
We have since learned that is actually not the case. The Patriots lost to Patricia’s Lions in humiliating fashion Sunday night on national television, 26-10. New England’s defense almost literally could not get off the field. It forced a single punt and took away the football just once.
Meanwhile, Patricia’s Lions defense allowed just 209 total yards. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was just 14-of-26 for 133 yards with a touchdown and interception, and New England’s running backs — rookie Sony Michel in particular — couldn’t move the ball on the ground.
Outside of a Deatrich Wise sack, a Ja’Whaun Bentley interception and a James White touchdown grab, the Patriots were lifeless.
Patriots defenders Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty wouldn’t use the excuse that it was Patricia’s familiarity that did them in. They said Sunday night’s game felt no different from any other as far as the Lions predicting New England’s tendencies.
Sunday’s performance was a repeat of what the Patriots showed in Week 2 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, anyway. They got down early, allowed the opposing offense to march down the field and couldn’t find any consistency on offense.
How did they not learn their lesson?
“We’re going out there, it’s not like we’re just not doing anything during the week,” McCourty said. “We’re working hard, practicing well. We’ve just got to go do it in the game and kind of let it go and make plays, play well as a team.”
So, why aren’t they?
“If I knew, then we’d be undefeated,” McCourty said.
Some of it might be a talent or personnel issue. The Patriots defense appears slow on the field. They’ve never attempted to add speed at linebacker, and it’s come back to bite them against faster running backs. It also didn’t help that the Patriots were without three starting defenders: defensive end Trey Flowers, safety Patrick Chung and cornerback Eric Rowe.
But it also feels like everything won’t be fixed when Flowers, Chung and Rowe return.
Regardless, New England’s leaders aren’t giving up hope.
“I think we’ve got a good amount of veterans that will lead the way,” McCourty said. “I think that starts with playing well. To turn it around, we’ve got to go play well. There’s nothing to talk about and there’s nothing to yell and scream. We’ve just got to, each man to himself, play better. That will get it turned around. But I’m confident these guys will come in and work hard and do everything we can to get that.”
“We’ve got to remain confident,” captain Matthew Slater said. “We have to continue to believe in one another and believe in our process and we can’t back away from that. We can’t shy away from holding one another accountable. We can’t shy away from pushing each other to do better, to do more. We’re going to find out who we are coming up.”
The Patriots’ defense, derisively known around New England as “bend don’t break,” never finished outside of the top 10 in points allowed while Patricia officially was defensive coordinator. The team also made three Super Bowls in that six-year span and won two of them.
But that defense now is bending for too long and then also subsequently breaking. It’s not giving the offense a chance to get out to a lead, and the offense isn’t putting the defense in good enough field position. The Patriots’ defensive success is predicated on the offense being one of the best in the NFL.
Perhaps getting Flowers, Chung and Rowe back will help. And maybe when receiver Julian Edelman returns from a four-game suspension and wideout Josh makes his Patriots debut, New England will start to put it all together.
But those are still question marks. The Patriots’ defense needs answers — fast.