So, are you a glass-is-half-full individual? If so, you’re encouraged by the sight of rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins coming away with eight catches for 116 yards, as well as the sight of the Patriots No. 1 defense -- without Vince Wilfork -- playing very well when it counted. In addition to Thompkins, Aqib Talib, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones all distinguished themselves, and deserve to hold their heads high.
But if you’re more of a glass-is-half-empty person, this morning, you’re waking up sick to your stomach at the thought of the New England offense turning the ball over four times and going a combined 5-for-16 on third and fourth down, the second- and third-team defense looking woefully unprepared and most of the rest of the young pass catchers not named Kenbrell looking underwhelming.
“Obviously when you turn the ball over four times in the first quarter, that will knock you out of most any game,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said late Thursday night. “And it practically knocked us out of this one.”
Ultimately, the difference lies somewhere in between. The Patriots were waxed 40-9 by the Lions in Detroit on Thursday night, and while there were positives -- Thompkins, the play of the starting defense -- it was also one of the worst displays of complimentary football New England put on film in recent memory. The Patriots played sloppy offensive football in the first half -- the offense didn’t do the defense any favors, as the Lions got the ball deep in New England territory on three of their first five possessions. (In contrast, the Patriots had 10 first-half possessions, and could only muster three points for their effort.) And while the defense spent most of the first half bailing frantically – remarkably, despite the four first-half turnovers, the score was just 16-3 at the break -- the ship was still sinking well into the second half.
If you’re going down a laundry list of things to be concerned about, many of the other issues can be easily explained away -- bad matchup, lack of intensity, scheme. But the turnovers should be at the top of the list. The Patriots have made their bones as a team who puts the utmost emphasis on ball security: on Thursday night, the Patriots had four turnovers in less than a half. They had 10 turnovers in the entire 2010 season.
“Any time you turn the ball over four times, your chances of winning in this league are not very good,” Belichick said. “And when you do it in the first quarter, on the road, I’m sure they’re even less.”
“When you lose the turnover battle 4-0, you have, like, a two percent chance of winning a game. I mean, it’s like, it’s impossible,” said quarterback Tom Brady, who threw his first pick of the season. “Our defense did a great job keeping them out of the end zone -- they were so competitive in the first half. But offensively, in order to score points, we’re going to have to string a bunch of good plays together and we’re going to have to play a lot better than we played tonight.”
It’s easy to mock the Lions and their exuberance over each minor victory on Thursday night -- whether it was forcing turnovers, getting stops on fourth down or just being a general pain in the ass, they went over the top in celebrating even the smallest of triumphs. But the difference in energy between the two teams was palpable, and Detroit fed off it all night, well into the second half. According to Brady, Belichick could see it coming all week, warning the Patriots and doing what he could to stoke a sense of urgency. (The Patriots routinely use music to get ready for hostile environments, but it's rare to hear it in the preseason. Belichick cranked AC/DC at earsplitting levels at practice on Tuesday afternoon so loudly that at one point, it rattled the walls in the Gillette Stadium press box.)
“We weren’t prepared for it, and it’s a good lesson for us,” Brady said after the contest. “I hope we learn from it.”
In the end, that’s what it comes down to. Can they learn from the experience? In a remarkable coincidence, the optimists can point to the fact that the 2011 Patriots were able to learn from a amazingly coincidental set of circumstances. That year, New England went into Detroit for the third game of the preseason and was crushed by a young and aggressive Lions’ team, 34-10. That night, Brady was sacked twice and hit seven times by a Detroit defense that celebrated the victory like it was a playoff win.
But that Patriots team licked its wounds and used the loss as a teachable moment -- two weeks later In the regular season opener, the quarterback threw for 517 yards and four touchdowns against the Dolphins. That team lost three games that year on the way to the Super Bowl.
Can this team do the same? Only time will tell. Brady does know one thing, however.
“If we’re going to kick off in two weeks, we’ve got to play a hell of a lot better than we played tonight,” Brady said.
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots Thursday night:
DETROIT IS A BAD MATCHUP FOR THE NEW ENGLAND OFFENSIVE LINE
The last time these two teams met in the preseason (the third week of the 2011 preseason), the Lions knocked Brady around pretty good, thanks to a ferocious Detroit defensive front. In that one, Brady was sacked twice, fumbled once, tossed one pick and was hit seven times. On Thursday night, it was almost an exact copy of that 2011 stat line: he was sacked twice, tossed one pick and hit seven times.
“They’re great players. They’re really good players. I give them all the credit in the world. We need to be competitive and play good against those sort of players,” said left tackle Nate Solder. “I think I had some breakdowns in some of my technique. I kind of saw what they could do and I knew they were good pass rushers and I would have liked to perform better.”
The quarterback didn’t get much support from his offensive line, but it’s important to remember that these sorts of teams -- ones with fast, physical, hyper-aggressive fronts that can generate pressure with just four rushers -- have always given the Patriots trouble. (It didn’t help that third-string right guard Will Svitek was pressed into a starting role.)
One thing that should comfort New England fans is the fact that there are few teams like that out there, and the fact that New England fell behind early and had to throw to get back into the game didn’t help matters. In the end, there are some genuine concerns with this team, but history tells us that Dante Scarnecchia has the ability to get things figured out between now and opening day.
EVEN IF IT MEANS A FREE TRIP BACK TO HIS ALMA MATER, TOM BRADY PROBABLY ISN’T GOING TO BE HAPPY IF THE PATRIOTS HAVE TO PLAY THE LIONS IN THE PRESEASON AGAIN
It wasn’t so much on the quarterback, but his work in the first two games with the starting offense stands in stark contrast to the beating he and the rest of the offense took Thursday against the Lions. The final line looks OK: 16-for-24 for 185 yards and one pick in 45 snaps. But there was never any sort of offensive consistency out of the first offensive unit through the first two quarters like there was when he was under center the first two weeks.
“We’ve just got to play better football,” Brady said. “We had a couple good weeks against Tampa and Philly -- good practices -- and then you have a week like this where you figure out, ‘Look, we’re not anywhere where we need to be.’
“That’s a good lesson for all of us. I don’t care who you are -- it’s the NFL, it’s a very humbling game and if you don’t bring it every single night, every week, you get your butt kicked, because there’s great players on the other team.”
In all, 35 of New England’s 77 plays from scrimmage either went for no gain, negative yards or ended with a turnover. On Thursday, as soon as things would really started to get cranked up, the offense would shoot itself in the foot.
One thing we do know is that the quarterback has pretty much taken himself out of the running for best preseason of his career -- he came into the game 18-for-20 for 172 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions. After three games, he sits at 34-for-44 (77 percent) for 357 yards with two touchdowns and one pick.
THE ROOKIES ARE CAPABLE OF PLAYING LIKE ROOKIES
Wide receiver Aaron Dobson struggled at times to get separation from Detroit’s defensive backs, and again played late into the contest (not a good sign), ending up with four catches (on eight targets) for 50 yards. Tight end Zach Sudfeld made a great catch and run on New England’s first drive, but had the ball knocked out at the 10-yard line and was pretty much stuck to the sidelines after that. Josh Boyce had his moments (two catches for 18 yards, playing mostly in the second half), but was pretty much a nonfactor when the game was in the balance. Other than the great night from Thompkins, it was a forgettable evening for New England’s rookie skill position players.
BILL BELICHICK’S DOGHOUSE IS AN AWFULLY LONELY PLACE TO BE
Sudfeld, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden all fumbled away the ball in the first half, and as a result, all of them fell off the radar screen for the rest of the night. Sudfeld had the ball forced out of his hands by a Detroit defender after a nice reception got New England down to the Lions’ 10 on its’ first drive. The third drive ended with a fumble from Bolden. And following a Brady interception on the second play from scrimmage in the second quarter, the Patriots turned the ball over AGAIN when Vereen coughed it up at the New England 8-yard line on their next drive. Sudfeld and Vereen weren’t spotted again until garbage time (Sudfeld ended up with one fourth-quarter reception), and Bolden was spotted on the sidelines at the end of the game in a T-shirt and shorts. (To be fair, he has dealt with some injuries, but it remains to be seen how much of his absence was due to injuries and how much was due to his turnover.) If the youngsters didn’t already understand the message, it was delivered loud and clear Thursday night -- ball security is paramount.
THE PATRIOTS MIGHT NOT FACE A TEAM WITH MORE TALENT AND LESS COMMON SENSE THAN THE LIONS ALL YEAR
On paper, the Lions are a magnificently talented team on both sides of the ball, with some truly elite players. That’s why it was so troubling to see them take so many penalties for yapping, hitting after the whistle and general idiocy. Detroit was hit with 11 penalties for 102 yards, including flags for personal fouls and taunting. Dopey stuff like this -- from Willie Young, who has never started a game in the NFL and has 25 tackles since he was taken in the seventh round out of N.C. State in 2010 -- is what makes the Lions so tough to watch.
A TEAM THAT GIVES UP 40 POINTS CAN PLAY GOOD DEFENSE
It sounds odd to praise the New England defense for this one, but it’s important to look beyond the box score and acknowledge the work of players on the No. 1 defense like Ninkovich and Jones for their effort on Thursday. The Patriots’ offense consistently gave away the ball to Detroit deep in their own territory over the first two quarters -- allowing Detroit unbelievably good field position -- but the defense managed to keep the game competitive. Three of the first five drives for the Lions started inside the New England 40, but in that stretch, the Patriots were able to hold them to just one touchdown. At first glance, it was the defensive front that did the bulk of the good work, particularly Ninkovich. On Detroit’s second offensive series, he was dominant, forcing a negative play on first down and showing nice hustle to take down the ballcarrier on third down. On the next series, Ninkovich split a sack with Tommy Kelly and forced the Lions -- who got the ball deep in New England territory -- to attempt a field goal. Jones also did a nice job consistently caving in the pocket early. Another good week for New England’s No. 1 pass rush.
RYAN MALLETT IS STILL THE NO. 2 QUARTERBACK
Not that this matter was ever really in doubt, but the Arkansas product took over for Brady with 11 minutes to go in the third quarter (the first offensive series of the second half for the Patriots) and ended 11-for-22 for 96 yards and a touchdown -- the lone score of the night came on a fourth-quarter pass to fullback James Develin that came from nine yards out and with 37 seconds left on the clock. He wasn’t as good as he was late in last week’s game -- the no-huddle helped him establish a good rhythm against the Bucs -- and still had issues with touch. The late scoring drive was a nice sequence, especially after the crowd spent part of the fourth quarter chanting for Tebow, who didn’t play.
OF THE GUYS ON THE BUBBLE, JOE VELLANO MAY HAVE DONE THE MOST TO HELP HIS CAUSE
The defensive tackle got the start alongside Kelly at defensive tackle -- Wilfork got the night off -- and appeared feisty in the middle, getting a good push inside. With Armond Armstead out for an undetermined period of time, the youngster did a nice job taking advantage of the opportunity, and made a push for a spot on the final 53-man roster. (Expect Vellano to get more quality playing time in the preseason finale.) Another player who continued to add to his resume Thursday night was rookie Logan Ryan, and while he’s not on the bubble, he’s clearly continuing to build on his recent run of success. He saw a lot of playing time deep into Thursday’s game (the second straight preseason week where he got good time), and flashed positively on a number of occasions, working as a physical presence and showing nice ball skills.
THERE NEEDS TO BE MORE CLARITY AT RUNNING BACK BETWEEN NOW AND CUTDOWN DAY
Part of it was because it was such a bad matchup for the offensive line, but after two very good weeks running the ball, the New England running backs appeared to struggle Thursday against the Lions. Two fumbles from the backs, 2.3 yards per carry and six yards on nine carries for your “feature” back in Stevan Ridley all adds up to a bad night for the backfield. Part of the reason the running game never really seemed to get on track was because the Patriots fell behind and had to throw the ball in an attempt to get back into the game (New England had just 11 carries in the second half). But there was no consistency from the running game all evening, and with first cuts looming this week and the preseason finale next Thursday, there will have to be some tough decisions made about this group of backs, particularly when it comes to the Bolden/LeGarrette Blount debate. Bolden, who has struggled with injury this summer, certainly didn’t help his case with his fumble and one carry for six yards. (Of course, Blount wasn’t lights out either, ending up with a team-high 10 carries for 26 yards.)