Throughout September and October, various members of the Patriots defense would talk optimistically about the progress they were making as a unit, the fact that they were coming together and starting to jell. And as the season continued, there was just enough improvement in the high-value defensive numbers -- third down, red zone and points allowed -- to spark a belief that they might get the thing headed in the right direction before the start of the playoffs.
But as the NFL regular season counts down to the final few weeks, time is starting to run out. For the members of the New England defense, there are only a handful of chances between now and the start of the playoffs to prove that real improvement is there, and that they can do their part to play deep into January.
If they are going to come together, it’s clear now that that process needs to be accelerated, because given the time of the season and the opponent, even the most rampant optimist might have a hard time finding a silver lining when it came to Sunday’s performance, a 34-27 win for the Patriots (click here for the complete recap) that featured plenty of defensive breakdowns for New England.
Yes, it was a win, but there were plenty of red flags for the Patriots defensively: After a strong start, they weren’t able to get a sustained pass rush on Washington quarterback Rex Grossman, who led the Redskins to 463 net yards. They allowed rookie running back Roy Helu to rush for a career-high 126 yards. And a banged-up secondary looked ragged in trying to keep up with the Washington receiving corps -- and later came in for a tongue-lashing from former New England safety Rodney Harrison on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”
“They won a football game,” Harrison said of the Patriots, “but they should be concerned, because that secondary is probably the worst secondary I’ve seen in the last decade.”
There were a couple of positives, particularly when it came to the red zone, where New England had a pair of big stops, holding Washington to two touchdowns on four trips inside the 20. But even though the defense ended on the highest of high notes on Sunday -- an artful, diving interception by linebacker Jerod Mayo to save the win -- to a man they know that a late pick can’t mask some of the inadequacies if they want to play deep into January.
“It was good enough today,” Mayo said of the defensive effort, “but it probably won’t be good enough any other week.”
“We have three more games to just try to go out there and compete,” said defensive end Andre Carter. “So for us, whether it’s defense, offense or special teams, we just have to see how can we constantly get better. Because it’s coming down to the wire now.”
Here are nine other things we learned on Sunday.
YOU NEVER FORGET THE FIRST TIME YOU GET GRONK’D
The Redskins were facing the big tight end for the first time since he arrived in the NFL before the start of the 2010 season, and he did not disappoint. A matchup nightmare, he operated without impunity pretty much all afternoon. Where to start? How about the early 49-yard catch and run that was straight out of a Mark Bavaro highlight reel, where he carried a pair of Washington defenders (Reed Doughty and DeJon Gomes) for a few yards before shedding them and ripping his way to the Washington 11? Or his record-breaking touchdown reception on the next play -- his 14th touchdown of the season, the most by a tight end? Or better yet, his second touchdown of the day where he faked like he was going to pass block, busted past Washington outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (who held him and drew a flag) and hauled in a little floater from Brady, taking it to the house for a 37-yard gain? All of them were memorable moments from an afternoon where he finished with six catches for a career-high 160 yards and two touchdowns. (For more on Gronkowski’s afternoon, check out Mike Petraglia’s story here.)
By the numbers: Gronkowski has 1,088 receiving yards on 71 receptions, and is on pace to finish with 87 receptions for 1,339 yards. The Patriots record for most receiving yards by a tight end is Ben Coates with 1,174 in 1994, while Coates also holds the Patriots record for most receptions by a tight end with 96, set in 1994.
Money quote: (tie) “I think Gronkowski and [Tom] Brady just click so well. They know what each other are going to do in certain situations. That throw that he made where I missed the tackle and Gronkowski scored. That was a heck of a throw right over top. Great catch. Not much you can do besides make the tackle.” -- Kerrigan on what makes Gronkowski so talented
“I had a pleasure to play with two of the brothers. I knew he was good and going to be tough -- one of those big coal mine-type of guys -- and he showed it. I was impressed with his balance and his ability to run after the catch today. He played big for them.” -- Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson on Gronkowski
TOM BRADY’S ABILITY TO SCRAMBLE IS ONE OF THE MOST UNDERRATED ASPECTS OF HIS GAME
The quarterback has always had great pocket presence, but was particularly impressive on Sunday against the Redskins, actually managing to keep some plays alive with his feet -- like his third-quarter touchdown pass to Wes Welker. On that one, he was able to detect subtle shifts in the pocket, and maneuvered slightly to try and avoid the Washington rush. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan just missed a swipe at his legs, forcing Brady to his right. He moved to the right, pump faked (and got a Washington defender in the air, buying another second or two) and eventually let fly for Welker, who was streaking down the middle of the field. Washington corner DeAngelo Hall was late to the ball, allowing Welker to make it nine yards into the end zone. Brady ended up going 22-for-37 for 357 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. (For more on Brady -- and the details about his on-field argument with offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien -- check out Mike Petraglia’s story here.)
By the numbers: With his eight rushing yards on Sunday, Brady now has 90 rushing yards through 13 games. It’s his most since he had 98 rushing yards in 2007. (His career high is 110 yards in 2002.)
Money quote: “We’re always trying to score. We moved the ball pretty well -- we just didn’t necessarily get it in the end zone when we needed to get in the end zone. That was probably the frustrating part about today is I think we left a lot of points on the board. The defense fortunately really finished the game well and made a great play at the end to really save us.” -- Brady on the New England offense on Sunday
ANDRE CARTER’S SEASON OF REDEMPTION APPEARS TO BE BACK ON TRACK
The former Washington defensive end entered Sunday’s game against his old team on a two-game sackless streak. (He said earlier in the week that he was facing more double-teams, perhaps because of his run of success over the middle part of the regular season.) But against the Redskins, he got things started nicely when he delivered a strip sack of Grossman in the Washington end zone in the first quarter. After a brief scrum, Vince Wilfork picked up the ball in the end zone, giving the defensive lineman his first career touchdown, and allowing the Patriots to take a 7-0 lead. Matched up against rookie left tackle Sean Locklear for a portion of the afternoon (starter Trent Williams was serving a suspension for a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy), Carter started strong and then appeared to drop off a bit, but he still managed to finish with five tackles (two solo), a good performance against the team that gave up on him in the offseason.
By the numbers: Carter had three quarterback hits on the day. Through 13 games, he leads the Patriots with 22 quarterback hits. In addition, he registered his 10th sack of the season, marking the first time a New England player has reached double digits in sacks since 2009, when Tully Banta-Cain finished with 10.
Money quote: “It was nothing personal. For me, it was just this season in itself has just been such a blessing. Just the opportunity to do what I do and play with some great men on this football field. So overall that was a way to contribute and try to put some points on the board. Then I did my job, I just went on to the next play.” -- Carter on his performance Sunday against Washington
DEVIN MCCOURTY HAD A ROUGH START AND A SOLID FINISH
Early on, McCourty appeared to be culpable on several pass plays from Washington, including a 51-yard pass from Grossman to Donte Stallworth, and then later on a nine-yard touchdown pass from Grossman to Jabar Gaffney. But he did make a bid for redemption in the second half, as he had a nice pass breakup on a third-quarter pass attempt for Donte Stallworth, and also delivered a ringing shot to Jabar Gaffney, breaking up a third-down pass play in the fourth quarter that forced a Redskins’ punt. (He also had a possible interception taken away when Andre Carter was flagged for roughing the passer.) It wasn’t a perfect afternoon, but the positive elements of what happened in the second half could provide a boost to the second-year defensive back, who has struggled mightily with his confidence over the course of the 2011 season.
By the numbers: McCourty finished the game with eight tackles (six solo) and a season-high three passes defensed. He also picked up a pass interference call, his first of the season, on another questionable call.
Money quote: “We’re in different coverages and they’re running different routes, but I thought Devin came back and made several plays at the end. I mean, he had kind of a tough pass interference call there. It was a close call. ... I thought that he came back and battled, and competed like he usually does, and he made several big plays for us. So it was good.” -- Belichick on McCourty’s performance
YOU PROBABLY WON’T SEE A MORE INCONSISTENTLY OFFICIATED PATRIOTS GAME THIS SEASON
It wasn’t so much the number of penalties, it was the perceived violations. Carter was flagged for a roughing the passer call with 4:26 left in the first half that looked questionable at best. (A call which negated a McCourty interception.) A few minutes later, Redskins linebacker London Fletcher was called for unnecessary roughness on Brady (as the quarterback was starting his slide after a scramble) when the officials said he delivered a forearm to the head, another questionable penalty. Then, in the third quarter, Vince Wilfork landed on Washington running back Evan Royster, and their two helmets knocked together. That drew another unnecessary roughness call. In the end, the Patriots picked up four penalties for 47 yards, while the Redskins were called for eight penalties, which amounted to 73 yards.
By the numbers: The Patriots have dramatically reduced their penalties over the last month (they’ve been flagged 13 times in the last four games, their best stretch of the season), but they’ve been hit with 74 penalties on the season. They are on pace for 91 penalties, the most since 2006, when they had 98 penalties.
Money quote: “Well, at least in my opinion, I thought it was horrible. That’s what I saw on the replay. What I saw on the replay I thought it was a bad call. I’d have to see it again to know for sure but my first look at it … I talked to them and I asked who called it because I didn’t agree with him.” -- Redskins coach Mike Shanahan on the call against Fletcher
DESPITE THE DEFENSIVE DEFICIENCIES, THE PATRIOTS ARE CLOSER TO PLAYING A COMPLETE 60 MINUTES THAN THEY WERE LAST WEEK
On Sunday, the Patriots offense avoided the early sluggishness that had plagued it so often over the last couple of months, putting together a good start (20 points in the first half, tying the second-best offensive output of the season) on the way to a tie score after two quarters. Offensively, the Pats were unable to put any points on the board in the fourth quarter for the second straight week, and overall, New England has scored one fourth-quarter touchdown over the last three games.
By the numbers: While the defense has chipped in with scores of its own (including Wilfork’s first-quarter fumble recovery in the end zone on Sunday), the 11-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Gronkowski in the first quarter against the Redskins was just the second first-quarter touchdown for the Patriots in the last seven weeks.
Money quote: “We’re capable of putting a lot of putting a lot of good plays together. We just need to do it consistently for sixty minutes. I think that’s what you see out there. We have opportunities to make plays, and we just, for one reason or another, we’re just a little bit off. We’re still working at it. There’s nothing perfect in football, unless you’re the Packers.” -- Brady on how far the Patriots are from clicking on all cylinders
THE PATRIOTS SHOULD HAVE NEVER ALLOWED JABAR GAFFNEY TO WALK
After three successful seasons in New England, Gaffney signed a big deal with the Broncos at the end of the 2008 season. As we wrote earlier in the week, it was one of the worst mistakes of the Belichick era, as the Patriots have been unable to replace Gaffney’s smarts and experience as the No. 3 receiver. On Sunday against New England, Gaffney was tremendous, ending up with a team-high six catches for 92 yards and a touchdown in the loss. In addition to the nice numbers, there were several little things he was able to accomplish on Sunday, including running some (legal) interference on Grossman’s third-quarter touchdown pass to David Anderson. Gaffney muddied the waters for New England defensive backs James Ihedigbo and McCourty, and as a result, Anderson sprung free for the six-yard touchdown pass from Grossman.
By the numbers: It was a very good day for ex-Patriots wide receivers, as Gaffney and Donte Stallworth combined for 10 catches for 198 yards and a touchdown, including a 51-yard pass play from Grossman to Stallworth in the first quarter.
Money quote: “They played great, they ran good routes, were aggressive to the football when the ball was in the air and they separated from their defenders. They’re both really good players, I’m glad the Patriots got rid of them.” -- Grossman on the performance of Gaffney and Stallworth
THE OFFENSIVE TACKLES JUST FINISHED AN IMPRESSIVE THREE-GAME STRETCH
Two weeks ago, after a rough start, they were able to mostly contain Philadelphia’s Jason Babin and Trent Cole. Last week, they held Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in check. And on Sunday against the Redskins, New England’s offensive tackles (with some help) held the Washington pass rush duo of Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan without a sack. The two young linebackers had one quarterback hit each, while defensive linemen Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen combined to get to Brady for Washington’s only sack of the day (a five-yard loss on the next-to-last play from scrimmage in the first quarter). There were clearly some protection issues (the Patriots shuffled Nick McDonald and Ryan Wendell in and out of the game at center) and the running game struggled, but when it came to pass protection, the New England offensive line certainly deserves a passing grade for its work against the Redskins.
By the numbers: While much was made of the fact that the Redskins were starting their sixth different offensive line in the last nine weeks (thanks in part to injuries and the suspension of starting left tackle Trent Williams), Sunday marked the second time the Light-Mankins-McDonald-Waters-Solder combo (from left to right) started as a group this season. It’s the fifth different offensive line combo the Patriots have utilized this season.
THERE WILL BE A TSUNAMI OF COVERAGE FOR TEBOW-BRADY THIS WEEK
As the 2007 regular season continued for the Patriots and the blowouts grew bigger and bigger, the national media coverage -- and hype -- grew to unprecedented levels as New England approached an undefeated season. Expect that same level of madness this week as New England prepares for its first full-contact dose of Tebowmania. The Broncos and Patriots will meet in the most compelling game of the week on Sunday at 4:15 p.m., and the nation will be watching to see if Belichick and New England can slow down Tebow, who is now 7-1 as a starter after another late comeback against the Bears on Sunday. While the Patriots have shown they are better than average at containing the run, the challenge of an option quarterback like Tebow will be unlike any they have faced in recent memory.
By the numbers: Something to get you cranked up for this week: According to Nuggetpalooza, only one Denver quarterback has had more fourth-quarter comebacks in a season than Tebow’s five this season -- John Elway had six in 1985.
Money quote: “Denver is a great team and we have to analyze [them]. They have been known to show fourth quarter comebacks. In all they have been playing well, period, for four quarters. For us, whether it is offense, defense or special teams we just have to see how we can possibly get better because it is coming down to the wire now.” -- Carter on the Broncos