FOXBORO -- After Patriots losses, there’s no better place to find the truth than at Logan Mankins’ locker. The veteran left guard is honest -- sometimes to a fault -- and never spares himself or anyone else on the roster in his assessment of what went wrong.
And so after the rest of the New England locker room had cleared out in the wake of the surprising 20-18 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday at Gillette Stadium (click here for the recap), several reporters waited patiently for Mankins to finish dressing and give his take on where things went wrong against Arizona.
It didn’t take long for him to offer his typically blunt opinion on the defeat.
“The defense kept us in the game all day; they played really well. The offense and special teams let the team down today,” he said quietly. “[The offense] didn’t play very good. Not scoring a touchdown until the fourth quarter. Kicking field goals. Penalties, pressures. Negative runs. [On] offense, we didn’t bring our best game, and it really showed.”
As usual, Mankins was spot on. The New England offense struggled for three-plus quarters. The Patriots ran five plays in Arizona territory in the first quarter and had just one series of eight plays or more until late in the third quarter. The Pats converted just two third downs in the second half. Quarterback Tom Brady was sacked four times. And eight of New England’s 78 plays from scrimmage went for negative yards.
“[We were] just too inconsistent throughout the day to really put enough points on the board,” agreed Tom Brady.
Meanwhile, special teams was equally culpable: Zoltan Mesko had a punt blocked for the first time in his NFL career after rookie Nate Ebner couldn’t deliver on a block. Mesko averaged a pedestrian 34.4 average on his five punts. And despite the fact that Stephen Gostkowski connected on his first four field goal attempts, with six seconds left and in position to win the game, he went wide left from 42 yards out.
“We had an opportunity to win the game. I’d had a good game up until that point, and I felt good going out there. It was just one of those things,” Gostkowski said. “You get opportunities like that not very often, and I have to do a lot better job of coming through for the team.
“I had a chance to win, and it came down to me and I didn’t pull through, and it stinks. I feel bad for the fans and my teammates. I can’t take it back now. I went out there and felt good about the kick and just didn’t execute.”
The Gostkowski miss came at the end of a remarkable sequence where the Cardinals, holding a two-point lead and in position to just about run out the clock with 1:10 remaining in regulation, fumbled the football. (Brandon Spikes poked the ball away and Vince Wilfork fell on it at the Arizona 30.) Two plays later, Danny Woodhead burst from the pack and appeared to score the game-winner ... but the run was called back because Rob Gronkowski was flagged for holding.
That left it up to the kicker, who had been dead-solid perfect all day. But with six seconds left, Gostkowski missed one of the first real high-pressure kicks of his career. (For more on Gostkowski, Mike Petraglia has the full story here.) And the Patriots, despite the fact that so much had gone wrong for them over the course of a weird afternoon, knew they had missed a golden opportunity to win a game they had no right winning.
“That was a gift that doesn’t happen very often, and we let it get away,” Mankins said wearily. “You’re not going to get chances like that very often to have one fumble at the end of the game running out the clock.”
It’s worth noting that there are one of these sorts of losses seemingly every year -- semi-fluky early season defeats against the Bills in Buffalo (2011) and the Jets (2010 and 2009) have marked the Patriots’ September calendar the last three years. In two of those three instances, they showed the mental toughness needed to shake off those defeats and forge very successful seasons.
Now, the 2012 team stands at a similar crossroads. With a rematch of the AFC title game with the Ravens looming on the horizon next Sunday night in Baltimore, it seems a bit dramatic to suggest this week represents a character-defining moment for this club. But we’ll know more about its backbone in the days to come, particularly how the team responds in a hostile environment like Baltimore.
“We’ll get back to work [Monday],” Mankins said. “I think everyone is taking the loss pretty hard, since we played so bad and didn’t have a chance to win. We didn’t get it done. But we’ll come in [Monday], watch that game, try to make corrections and get back after it Wednesday. We have a tough opponent coming up.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday.
LIKE THE REST OF THE PATRIOTS OFFENSE, TOM BRADY WAS TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
As Brady-esque performances go, it was rather routine: After a slow start, he finished 28-for-46 for 318 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. The touchdown came late when he found Rob Gronkowski with a laser from five yards out to cut the Arizona lead to 20-18, and his pick -- the first turnover of the year for the Patriots -- came on a perfectly tipped ball on his first pass attempt of the game that was caught by Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson.
It wasn’t so much that Brady struggled, but it was a lack of execution across the board on offense that ultimately led to the breakdowns. And like Mankins indicated, Brady noted that the chances were there for the Patriots. They just failed to cash in, and that cost them, particularly down the stretch when New England was forced to try to mount a comeback in the fourth quarter.
“Well, it’s a team game and certainly we shouldn’t have been leaving it up to that particular situation,” Brady said. “We were fortunate to get that defensive turnover there late. We just came up short. We have opportunities to make plays and we’re just not making them. Just too inconsistent throughout the day to really put enough points on the board.”
THERE STILL ARE ISSUES WITH THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE OFFENSIVE LINE
While things have started to stabilize on the left side of the offensive with Mankins and left tackle Nate Solder (with help from a tight end or two along the way), things are still a bit unsettled on the right. Part of that is because right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is continuing to work his way back to full strength after spending most of the spring and summer on the sidelines with a (presumed) back injury.
As was the case in the opener against the Titans, Vollmer and Marcus Cannon split time at right tackle Sunday against Arizona. Meanwhile, Dan Connolly (who suffered a head injury last week against the Titans and was limited in practice over the course of the week) was active, but the Patriots decided to go with Donald Thomas at right guard.
The Cannon/Thomas combo appeared to have a mix-up in protection that ultimately led to a sack of Brady, who was sacked four times and hit six times. (Last time Brady was sacked four times in a game? Last September’s loss to the Bills in Buffalo.) Arizona defensive end Calais Campbell had two sacks and hit Brady a total of three times.
“My teammates made good plays turning [the receivers] back inside,” Campbell said after the game. “The sacks were both coverage sacks, because the DBs did what they are supposed to do. I’ll take it any way I can get it, but hats off to my teammates because they played a great game. We had a good game plan today.”
AARON HERNANDEZ IS A HUGE PART OF THE OFFENSE
The tight end -- who remains one of the most versatile offensive options in the league -- went down with a right ankle injury midway through the first quarter, one he suffered when he got rolled up on by teammate Julian Edelman while working as a blocker. Hernandez was helped off the field and to the locker room.
“I don’t know yet,” Gronkowski said when asked about the health of his fellow tight end. “Hopefully he’s fine. He’s a great player and we need him. I don’t know what his diagnosis is. Hopefully, he’s OK.”
Without Hernandez, the Patriots offense didn’t have the same flow, the same rhythm. As we detailed here, the presence of Hernandez allows the New England offense to do multiple things and change its look right up until the snap of the ball -- with him in there, the Patriots can move effortlessly from run to pass and not miss a beat. They can run more no-huddle and substitute less.
Instead, New England didn’t have the same sort of flexibility, and it showed. Without Hernandez, the Patriots leaned more on Wes Welker over the final three quarters -- Welker had five catches on 11 targets for 95 yards. And while New England did reach the end zone at the end of the game, even the most rabid Patriots fan will tell you that the team had one good offensive sequence out of its 13 possessions. A lot of that was because of Hernandez’s absence.
X-rays on Hernandez reportedly were negative, which means no broken ankle. But there remains the possibility of a high-ankle sprain, which could leave him on the shelf for an extended period (4-6 weeks). Hernandez has missed chunks of time over his first two seasons because of knee injuries, and in his place, the Patriots were able to lean heavier more on other offensive options.
If Hernandez is gone for an extended period this time around, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Patriots try to make sure Daniel Fells is ready for next Sunday night in Baltimore. They could add to their depth at some of the other skill positions as well (Deion Branch?) in hopes of creating more offensive options across the board.
But just don’t expect the same smooth offensive flow without No. 81 in the lineup.
“He’s a great player,” Welker said of Hernandez. “He makes so many plays for us and he’s really come into this training camp and really done really well. He’s a really tough guy to match up against and I think everybody across the board has got to pick up the slack and make some plays out there in his place.”
“We have an offense with him in the game and without him in the game,” Brady said of Hernandez. “Guys go in and out and you lose guys over the course of a game, and you have to be able to adjust. I’m sure he’s not going to be the only one we lose this year at some point, but we have to figure out a way to still move the ball effectively throughout the course of the game -- enough where we can score more than 18 points.”
RIGHT NOW, JULIAN EDELMAN IS THE NO. 2 RECEIVER
Whether it’s game-planning, a personnel decision or an unnatural spike in playing time, compared to his regular workload, Wes Welker has seen a reduction in playing time over the first two weeks of the 2012 season.
In the opener against the Titans, he played 42 of the 67 snaps (63 percent), and on Sunday against the Cardinals, WEEI.com counted him as being on the field for 57 of the 78 plays from scrimmage (73 percent). Even though there was a boost from Week 1 to Week 2, it’s quite a difference for someone who was played almost 90 percent of the snaps last season.
Moving into that void has been Julian Edelman. In Week 1, he was on the field for 23 of the 67 snaps. On Sunday against Arizona, WEEI.com had Edelman on the field for 67 of the 78 snaps (86 percent).
One of the reason for the difference on Sunday was the first-half injury to Hernandez. When the tight end departed with an ankle injury, Welker saw a dramatic upturn in snaps, while Edelman stayed on the field down the stretch as the Patriots used three-wide sets on several occasions. Ultimately, Welker ended up with five catches (on 11 targets) for 95 yards, while Edelman had five catches for 50 yards. (For more on Welker, click here for Kirk Minihane’s take.)
When asked if he was OK with Edelman playing in front of Welker, Brady gave a diplomatic response.
“There are plays that Julian is in there for; there are a lot of plays that Wes is in there for,” Brady said. “I love both those guys and they both work really hard. That’s always coach’s decision. Who’s out there, that’s not really my decision.”
Welker, who broke Troy Brown’s team record for most career receptions with his first catch of the day, said after the game that you “never know” when it comes to how many snaps you might play.
“I always just prepare myself to be ready, and when my number is called, I go out there and try to make plays whenever I get an opportunity,” he said. “You want to be out there. I think as a competitor and everything else, especially on Sundays, it’s what we play for and what we work for. You want to be out there, but at the same time, whatever works best for the team I’m for that. I totally understand it. I’m just there to help out whenever I can.”
LARRY FITZGERALD CAN BE STOPPED
Holding Larry Fitzgerald in check was the top priority for the New England defense, and it succeeded on Sunday, rendering the Pro Bowl receiver a nonfactor for much of the afternoon. The Patriots held him to one catch (on five targets) for four yards, with his only reception coming on Arizona’s first drive of the game when he grabbed a short four-yarder over the middle. Other than that, there was nothing for Fitzgerald.
“That’s great, but ultimately we didn’t do enough in order to stop [Arizona],” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said when asked about Fitzgerald. “They scored 20 points and it wasn’t enough for us to win the game. So ultimately we didn’t stop them.”
The last time Fitzgerald was held to one catch, it was Dec. 25, 2010, when he had one reception for 25 yards in a win over Dallas. Before that, he had two games as a rookie in 2004 when he had worse outings: a one-catch, two-yard game in a win over the Giants, and a game against the Bills when he was shut out completely.
It wasn’t only the defensive backs that did their job when it came to stopping Fitzgerald. As a group, the Patriots defense gets a pass on this one. The Pats were able to consistently keep the Cards in check -- five of Arizona’s 13 drives ended with three-and-outs. The Cardinals averaged 3.2 yards running the ball, quarterback Kevin Kolb was just 15-for-27 for 140 yards, and Arizona was just 4-for-14 on third down. New England forced two turnovers and held Arizona to just 245 total net yards on the day.
“Obviously it wasn’t good enough,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo, who led the Patriots with nine tackles (four solo). “We’re perfectionists around here, so we’re trying to get better. This is the second game -- we’re 1-1. We have a big game coming up, so we’ll watch this film tomorrow, make corrections and get ready for Baltimore.”
THERE ARE TIMES WHEN THE HURRY-UP JUST DOESN’T JELL
Some of this ultimately could be tied to the fact that there were some puzzling play calls on the offensive side of the ball for New England and some could be tied to the loss of Hernandez. But for the Patriots on Sunday, the offense struggled to find a rhythm, and that was particularly true when it tried to go no-huddle.
Of its 78 plays from scrimmage on Sunday, New England was in no-huddle for 19 of them -- 24 percent, which is about the team's average over the last year-plus. But eight times before the start fourth quarter, the Patriots ran no-huddle plays, and on six of those occasions, New England got one yard or less. You can’t sustain a hurryup with that lack of momentum, and it showed on the lack of flow on offense.
“We just didn’t come out firing,” said Welker. “We didn’t have a great week of practice and coach made a point of that, that we needed to almost play some catch-up. We really didn’t do things necessary to come away with a win, especially early. We have to start faster than that and come out and play from ahead and do things the way we need to.”
“Offensively, when you don’t play well and you don’t play consistently, if you’re not going to get a big play, then you have to drive the ball and you can’t drive the ball if you’re always two steps forward, one step back,” Brady said. “That’s the way it felt today. We’d get the drive going and then there would be a negative play and we’d be forced to try to make a miraculous play to get back on track. It just wasn’t a very good day in that sense.”
IT WASN’T A GOOD WEEK OF PRACTICE FOR THE PATRIOTS
A bad week of practice is something that has been traced back to previous Patriots’ losses, and so it was no surprise to hear that early postmortems indicate that the seeds for Sunday’s defeat at the hands of the Cardinals were planted on the practice fields behind Gillette over the course if the week.
“You have to be ready for any situation in any game. That’s what practice is for all week,” Gronkowski said. “Clearly we didn’t practice good enough, I didn’t practice good enough all week. We have to pick that up and be ready for all situations at all times.”
“It started in the week in practice,” said cornerback Kyle Arrington. “Everybody will probably tell you that everybody knew what they were doing and we still couldn’t even get it done in some instances on the practice field: blown calls, lack of communication, or whatever the case is, and it showed up today in the game.”
“We didn’t have a good practice there toward the end of the week, and I think it showed up today,” Mankins said. “We didn’t play very well, and when you’re playing a good team -- like we said all week, they’re good -- if you don’t play good against a good team, you’ll lose.”
THIS WEEK WILL BE ANOTHER NEW EXPERIENCE FOR THE ROOKIES
Despite the fact that it appears Nate Ebner was the one who missed the block that led to the blocked punt, it was another good individual week for most of New England’s rookie class. However, despite the nice numbers, they will learn that in the Patriots universe, personal stats mean very little unless you bring home the W.
•Defensive end Chandler Jones had five tackles (three solo), as well as one tackle for loss (a nifty takedown of Arizona’s Ryan Williams five yards behind the line of scrimmage in the second quarter) one quarterback hit and one forced fumble. After a slow start, he consistently got the better of Arizona left tackle D’Anthony Batiste. Jones frequently flushed Kolb out of the pocket and was able to make him uncomfortable for much of the afternoon. (One of the reasons that Larry Fitzgerald only finished with one catch for four yards was because Kolb was frequently running for his life.)
•Linebacker Dont’a Hightower also had five tackles (three solo) and one tackle for loss, an impressive stop of Arizona’s Beanie Wells that came two yards in the backfield. And safety Tavon Wilson was able to come away with a turnover for the second straight week, picking up a fumble midway through the second quarter after a Jones hit on Kolb.
STEVAN RIDLEY GOT OFF TO A GOOD START
After a terrific effort in Week One against the Titans (21 carries, 125 yards, one touchdown), the running back out of LSU followed that up with an equally impressive first half against the Cardinals. Ridley rushed for 54 yards on 11 carries over the first two quarters -- including a game-high 20-yarder at the end of the first quarter -- and generally looked like the most impressive skill position player on the field for New England.
The second half? Not so much. Whether it was game planning or schemes or whatever, Ridley wasn’t utilized as much in the third and fourth quarter -- he had seven carries for 17 yards in the second half. He ended up with 18 carries for 71 yards. (Not just Ridley, but the first half/second half splits for the New England running game are jarring. The Patriots had 71 rushing yards and a 4.4 yards per carry average in the first two quarters, and in the second half, New England had 19 yards on the ground and a 1.6 yards per carry average.)