FOXBORO — First, let’s start with the most obvious point: They are young.
Jermaine Cunningham was in junior high when Adam Vinatieri split the uprights in the Superdome, Brandon Spikes had just turned 14 when Mo Lewis hit Drew Bledsoe, and when Ty Law picked off Peyton Manning three times in the January snow of Gillette Stadium, Pat Chung was still an underclassman in high school.
Sure, there are old guys like Gerard Warren (32 years old), Tully Banta-Cain (30) and Vince Wilfork (28). But at the end of the day, after years of getting progressively older and older in almost every defensive phase of the game, the Patriots now have one of the youngest defenses in the league. They have the youngest secondary in the NFL, and, according to the NFL Network, have the seventh-youngest collection of linebackers in the league.
In other words, Junior Seau isn’t walking through that door.
The last few years, the Patriots desperately needed to get younger on defense, but when you actually get younger, the trade-off is days like Sunday — a 38-30 win over the Bills (click here for the full recap) — when the Patriots have multiple players on the defensive side of the ball making their first start at the NFL level. No matter how well-coached the players are, youth and inexperience will shine through, and result in little to no pass rush and poor coverage against one of the leagues’ worst offenses. (Buffalo posted 374 total net yards on the day — more than their total through the first two games on the season.)
“We’re young,” linebacker Jerod Mayo said of the New England defense, which has allowed 24, 28 and 30 points in the three games this season, “but these guys are hungry and they’re willing to learn. We have a great coach in coach [Bill] Belichick, and he’s putting us in positions. We just have to execute better and make plays.”
As a result of the defensive question marks, at this point, it’s clear this team will go only as far as the offense can take it. That was the case on Sunday, when despite a 38-point outburst, the game really didn’t feel safe until Brandon Meriweather picked off a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass with just over three minutes remaining.
Meanwhile, the burden of winning games will now fall to the offense, and quarterback Tom Brady in particular. The success or failure of the Patriots has always been tied inexorably to Brady, but now, more than ever, how far the 2010 Patriots will go rest on the shoulders of the quarterback. They need Brady to not only play well, but to win games for them.
“As a quarterback, that’s a big responsibility that you have,” said Brady, who was 21-for-27 for 252 yards and three touchdowns in his 14th straight win over Buffalo. “You’ve got to be consistent. You’ve got to always be prepared and always into the game. There’s no practices off. You can’t [not] bring the enthusiasm or the energy. Something I always try to do.
“I wouldn’t say it’s much different having younger guys. I’ve got to do it regardless, along with the other veteran players too. I think that’s the responsibility. As you get older, you take on more. You don’t want to put all your focus into one player who this would be his third NFL game.”
This is not to suggest the defense couldn’t improve over the course of the season, but right now, if you’re a Patriots fan, there will be no 12-0 or 10-6 games in your immediate future. If New England is to win games, the defense will need a lot of help from the offense. Whether that comes as the result of a continued effort to try and control the pace of the game, winning the time of possession and keeping their defense off the field for as long as possible … or simply piling up more points than their opponents, it’s the new reality for New England football fans.
“You just go out there and try to do your best in all three phases every week, and hope it’s enough,” Belichick said when asked if this is a team that needs the offense to help out the defense. “Whether it’s 3-2 or 50-49 or whatever, it’s just trying to come out with a few more points than they do.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
THE NEW ENGLAND RUNNING GAME IS IN A STATE OF FLUX
The Patriots’ running game put together one of the quietest 200-yard performances in NFL history Sunday against the Bills. BenJarvus Green-Ellis led the way with 16 carries for 98 yards, while Danny Woodhead had three rushes for 42 yards and a touchdown, Sammy Morris added six carries for 19 yards and Fred Taylor had six carries for 16 yards before coming out of the game with a toe injury in the second half.
(Taylor, who was hobbled with a toe injury throughout the week, is nowhere near 100 percent. When he carried the ball on Sunday, there was none of his usual fluidity — instead, he was stiff, and unable to get any real burst off the line. It remains to be seen how be will be affected as the season continues, but his play the last two weeks certainly isn’t encouraging.)
“It was a lot better than the two yards per carry that we had last week,” Belichick said of the Patriots’ running game, which hit its highest single-game team rushing total since Dec. 14, 2008, when the Patriots had 277 rushing yards on 38 carries at Oakland. “It was productive. We got our production from a lot of different types of runs: some sub runs, some big people runs. We got outside. We hit some inside plays, reverse. I think we had good balance out of all of it.”
Green-Ellis had a really good day, grinding out some tough yardage, particularly in the second half when he had 71 rushing yards, seven of which came on a fourth-quarter touchdown run that made it a two-touchdown game midway through the fourth quarter. However, his most impressive run came in the first half when he had a 20-yard carry. It was a run where he took his time and let the blocks develop in front of him, letting guard Dan Connolly serve as a road-grader so he could get into the Buffalo secondary.
Of course, the prospect of a scout teamer suddenly being thrust into a key role is nothing new with the Patriots, so no one should be at all surprised at the progression of Green-Ellis through the system. Thought to be a possible candidate to be let go on cutdown day, he is now looking at a role as a regular member of the New England offense — a role that could change if Taylor continues to be slowed by his toe.
“The line — actually, everybody did a good job out there. I was just trying to do my job and run through the holes they created,” Green-Ellis said after the game.
“We feel sorry for Kevin [Faulk] and his injury. We hope he gets well soon,” he added. “No matter who goes down, the train has to keep rolling. Everybody has to go out and do their part.”
THE PATRIOTS WERE ABLE TO OVERCOME THEIR SECOND-HALF WOES, AT LEAST ON OFFENSE
New England had one offensive touchdown in the second half of the season opener against the Bengals. They had none last week against the Jets. On Sunday against the Bills, the Patriots’ offense was able to string together three second-half scoring drives, including back-to-back 13-play sequences that took 7:21 and 6:26 off the clock, respectively. Randy Moss (35 yards) and Rob Gronkowski (five yards) had third-quarter touchdown catches (Moss had two touchdown catches on the day) and Green-Ellis added a seven-yard touchdown run in the fourth to finish the New England scoring.
In all, New England scored 21 points in the second half. The last time the Patriots had a similar second-half explosion of at least 21 second-half points was a 41-7 rout of the Broncos at Gillette Stadium on Oct. 20, 2008.
One of the reasons the Patriots able to enjoy some second-half scoring was because they were able to move the chains in the third and fourth quarter: in the second half, the Patriots were 5-for-10 on third downs. They also mixed things up with some no-huddle, which appeared to catch the Bills off-guard.
“I think us just not shooting ourselves in the foot and really just kind of focusing in and moving the ball. We had a good game plan this week and we were able to go out there and do some things and make some plays out there,” said Wes Welker of the differences between this week and the previous two weeks. “It’s huge. Getting the defense off the field and letting them rest up and us put together some big second-half drives and tire out their defense is huge for us. Getting to make some of those plays was good.”
“Just determination and will and wanting to, that’s all,” said Moss of the difference between the Bills’ game and the first two weeks of the season. “Really, the second half, really playing four quarters and coming in after making your halftime adjustments, is just will and determination and just going out there and wanting to do it. They called the plays and we have to go out there and execute it as players. I think in the past, we’ve stubbed our toe, but [Sunday] was just good from all angles. We were able to put some points on the board in the second half, so hopefully we can build off that.”
NO ONE IS GOING TO REPLACE KEVIN FAULK
As Belichick noted earlier in the week, it will be impossible for the Patriots to replace Faulk with just one guy. On Sunday, New England was able to go to a variety of skill position players in hopes of cobbling together a reasonable facsimile of the sort of production Faulk has usually brought to the Patriots.
In the passing game, it was a combination of players. Early on, the job fell to rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez, who had three catches for 52 yards in the first half (and ended the day with a team-high six receptions for 65 yards). The Patriots were also able to incorporate Welker (four catches, 45 yards) and Gronkowski (three catches, 43 yards, one touchdown) into the short passing game as well.
In the running game, Sammy Morris was the running back frequently lined up next to Brady in the shotgun, and even though he only saw a limited amount of snaps, Danny Woodhead was also utilized. Woodhead certainly inspired comparisons to Faulk on his touchdown run when he took a handoff from Brady, delivered an excellent cutback and simply outraced everyone to the end zone.
“The linemen made great blocks,” Woodhead said. “I did the easy part, which is just run it. The linemen did great and the receivers and tight ends … I mean, you can’t ask for better blocking as a running back. All I did was try to do my job.”
Woodhead, who ended up with three carries for 42 yards and a touchdown, was a favorite with his teammates and fans when he was with the Jets, and it’s not hard to see why.
“If you can see him back there,” said Brady when asked if Woodhead could be stopped. “He crouches down, I’m telling you, there’s not too many linebackers … he’s tucked in there behind the center. He did great. What an impressive performance for a guy who’s been here for 10 minutes. He did a great job.”
“I like Woody. He’s a little ‘stub’ guy. A little short. He runs hard and has some nice cuts,” Moss said with a smile. “I’m not disrespecting him, and I know it’s hard to replace Kevin Faulk, but hopefully he can come in and be Woodhead and not try and be Kevin. I think we like the things we saw out there.”
AFTER A REALLY GOOD START TO THE SEASON, THE NEW ENGLAND SPECIAL TEAMS UNIT HAS STARTED TO STRUGGLE
Punter Zoltan Mesko hit a pair of bad punts (a 33-yarder and a 36-yarder), the Patriots yielded a 97-yard kick return to Buffalo kick returner C.J. Spiller and kicker Stephen Gostkowski is now 2-for-5 on field goal attempts after connecting on a 43-yarder at the end of the first half on Sunday.
Facing an always competitive Buffalo special teams unit, the Patriots suffered a special teams breakdown at the worst possible time. After a New England drive at the start of the second half that gave the Patriots a 24-16 lead and appeared to restore some order to things, the Bills answer with an impressive 95-yard touchdown return from C.J. Spiller.
It was an embarrassing sequence for the Patriots, who Devin McCourty and Gostkowski clonk into each other and take each other out of the play. (Spiller also did a phenomenal job outracing Kyle Arrington to the end zone.) The play sucked all the air out of Gillette Stadium and gave new life to the Bills.
“We saw all week how they were going to play us — my job was just to read my keys and use my speed,” said Spiller. “I knew I was going to have to make somebody miss, and most likely I was going to have to beat the kicker. The guys did a good job of covering him up and they did exactly what we saw on film.
“Anytime during special teams and you can get a touchdown or great field position it can swing the momentum, and I think that kind of did. That’s why I’m back there, to either get a touchdown or give us good field position or try to swing momentum back our way. That particular play kind of lifted us up a little bit.”
DARIUS BUTLER COULDN’T BE ANY DEEPER IN THE DOGHOUSE
After an absolutely brutal week against the Jets last Sunday, the Patriots yanked the second-year cornerback and went with Kyle Arrington at right cornerback to start the game. Butler saw some limited time on special teams early on against the Bills, but didn’t see his first action at corner until there were just under 10 minutes left in the first half. After a couple of plays where the Bills got big chunks of yardage, he was quickly replaced in favor of Arrington.
It now appears that, at least for the moment, Butler has even slipped past Jonathan Wilhite — when New England went to nickel packages against Buffalo, they went with Wilhite. It’s a key stretch in the professional development of Butler, who must lean on the “short memory” he talked about in the wake of the loss to the Jets.
In his place, Arrington had an up-and-down afternoon. He had his good moments, finishing with three tackles, but there was plenty of down — he made a bad form tackle on Roscoe Parrish, trying to knock him down with his shoulder. (Given new life, Parrish picked up big yardage after the missed tackle, eventually turning it into a 31-yard gain.) And on Buffalo’s kick return for a touchdown from C.J. Spiller, he was simply outraced to the end zone by Spiller, who blew through a field of defenders on his way to a 95-yard return.
“[I] had to get into the game a little bit. After that, I felt comfortable. [It] didn’t feel too bad at all,” Arrington said of his first NFL start. “I thought the communication was good. We could have executed a little better though, on a couple of plays. I thought the communication was good, though.”
“Both guys played,” Belichick said of the Butler/Arrington combination at right corner. “Kyle has been practicing well, so we thought we’d give him an opportunity there. Early in the game he made a couple of plays, so we kind of stayed with it. We have confidence in all those guys — Darius, Jonathan, Devin [McCourty], Kyle — whoever it happens to be. You can put any of them out there.”
WHEN IT COMES TO THE ROOKIE TIGHT ENDS, THE STATUS IS QUO
Hernandez had another great game. It was his second straight game with six catches, and he finished with 65 receiving yards, including a 14-yard gainer where he made Buffalo linebacker Keith Ellison miss so badly he slipped and fell trying to tackle him. (It was the second straight week the Florida product led the Patriots in catches and yardage.) On New England’s first possession, he produced 52 yards of offense, which ended in a 7-yard touchdown reception by Randy Moss. Hernandez had a 13-yard rush, a 25-yard catch and a 14-yard catch on the drive. And Rob Gronkowski had three catches for 43 yards and a touchdown, the second of his career.
“We’re just going out there to fill our role to do what the coaches have us out there to do when they put us in,” Gronkowski said of the rookie tight end combination. “We’re going out there to go execute what we have to do. And we just play hard every play. We’re all supporting each other as a tight end group. We’re all satisfied with the outcome today.”
According to Brady, they have excelled in more than just the passing game.
“They did great,” Brady said of New England’s tight end crew, which includes veteran Alge Crumpler. “I think that’s been a big point of emphasis for us this year is getting those guys involved in the passing game and the running game. To run the clock out like we did at the end with Alge as a blocker and Gronk as a blocker, that’s important. Those guys really allow us to do certain things on our offense that not a lot of teams in the league are fortunate to be able to do.”
“That’s two huge additions for this football team. They’re great receivers. They can block,” Buffalo coach Chan Gailey said of Hernandez and Gronkowski. “They give them a whole different dimension in their passing game and two more weapons for Brady. It just makes you spread a little thin, and that’s what happens. You get spread thin on defense if you’re not careful.”
THE PATRIOTS’ SECONDARY IS IN NO POSITION TO LOOK A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH
After getting cuffed around pretty good in the wake of last week’s loss to Mark Sanchez and the Jets, the young New England secondary was a mixed bag Sunday against the Bills. There were breakdowns in several areas, but they came away with two fourth-quarter interceptions.
The first came on the first play from scrimmage in the fourth quarter. Buffalo had the ball on the New England 20, and was down by just eight points, 31-23. Fitzpatrick looked deep down the middle of the field for Roscoe Parrish, but Pat Chung was able to pick the ball off — really, he simply didn't drop a ball that was delivered right to him — and bring it out of the end zone.
“You got to always think ‘touchdown,’” said Chung, who brought the ball all the way out of his own end zone to New England’s 25. “[It] was more of an instinct. Then the play’s over and you got to move on to the next one. That’s how I feel.”
The second came with just over three minutes remaining in the fourth and the Patriots holding to another eight-point lead, this time a 38-30 advantage. As Fitzpatrick dropped back, he went deep left to David Nelson, but Meriweather leaped high in the air and came away with the pick.
“Big. They were huge. They ended drives. They took points off the board. They were huge,” Meriweather said of the two interceptions.
“It’s always nice to get a pick,” Meriweather added when asked about his own, the 10th interception of his career. “It’s nice to get any. It’s always nice to get any turnover, period. But to get it at the time that it came, it’s just that much better.”
EVEN THE REFEREES CAN HAVE A BRAINLOCK
With less than a minute to go in the first half, the Bills called back-to-back timeouts, with the second one allowing them to get their field goal unit on the field. (Rian Lindell would connect for a 34-yard field goal, giving Buffalo a 16-14 lead.) It was a head scratching sequence — teams aren’t allowed to call back-to-back timeouts — and it left Belichick agitated on the New England sidelines.
After the game, referee John Parry explained what happened.
“There is no foul for calling a second timeout in the rulebook,” Parry explained to the pool reporter, ESPN’s Mike Reiss. “We shouldn’t have granted it. We shouldn’t have shut the play down. But, there is no penalty. There is no 5-yard penalty for what we did. [The procedure is to] get the players reset, the second time out is not allowed, resume play, which is what we did.”
Parry explained in was a unique series of events that led up to the call, saying it was an “interesting play” that led up to the decision.
“On third down we had a run play where we ruled a first down, so we have a running clock,” Parry said. “Buffalo called their first timeout to stop the clock. Replay now gets involved because they want to review the spot to determine if it is a first down or [is] not a first down. Through replay, we ended up moving the ball back about a half-a-yard, to the 16-and-a-half [yard line], which now makes a fourth down, but because we didn’t change it to a stopped-clock scenario, Buffalo is still charged with the timeout that they called. âÂÂÂ¨âÂÂÂ¨“They come up to the line of scrimmage and the play clock is moving down from 25. I don’t know exactly where it was, but it was close to zero, probably one, two or three seconds, I suppose. I think a wide receiver turned to the wing official and asked for a timeout, which should not have been granted. What we do mechanically if that does happen, which it obviously did, we bring the players out, we reset play and we go.”
While Belichick was more than a little steamed at the original call, he sounded mollified after the game.
“They made [a mistake]. They acknowledged it. They did the right thing,” Belichick said. “I was just upset because I didn’t really know what happened, I mean, I knew what happened, but then they reset the clock and it was fourth-and-one and we had to really rush and get everything that we were … we just didn’t get it as quickly as we should have. I thought the play should have been stopped and [they should have] said ‘OK, here is what happened.’ I think their feeling was, ‘Well, we already blew it by giving them a timeout when there wasn’t a timeout, so now there is no timeout, so now you’ve got to go.’
“I understand what John [Parry] did. I think he handled the situation okay. It was just frustrating that that mistake happened. But we made a lot more mistakes out there than they did, so I don’t really have any issue with it.”
IN THE END, THEY DON’T GIVE ANY STYLE POINTS FOR A DIVISIONAL WIN
It was a very ugly victory, but it was a victory. A divisional victory — the first divisional win of the season for the Patriots — which means that when they tally up the final numbers in what promises to be a close race for the division title, it’ll mean a little bit more than some other wins.
“You’re trying to win the game,” said Brady after the game, sounding very much like Herm Edwards. “At the end of the year when you look at your record, going ‘Oh that was a close game, it counts for a half a win.’ A win’s a win. It doesn’t really matter if you win by 50 or by one. Because the following week, it really makes no difference how you did the previous week.
“It’s like a chapter. Once this chapter’s over, you move on. You don’t sit there and reflect, ‘Well last week we lost by 30. This week we won by seven, so we’re still a crappy team.’ No, you’re 1-1. The goal is to win the game. It’s really not a matter of ‘That was a great looking win or that was a bad win.’ You’re trying to win.”