FOXBORO — A week ago, the Patriots offense had its chance to make a statement on a pair of fourth-down situations. On both occasions, it came through, converting twice on a key possession to keep an important second-half drive alive in a win over the Falcons.
On Sunday, it was the defense that had its chance. Faced with a pair of fourth-down situations in the fourth quarter, the New England D held the Ravens offense, allowing the Patriots to escape with the 27-21 win. (Check the full game recap here.)
The first instance happened midway through the fourth quarter with New England leading 27-21. On a third-and-1, defensive lineman Ty Warren swooped in from the outside and hauled down running back Ray Rice for no gain. On the next play, linebacker Gary Guyton and safety Brandon McGowan wrapped up running back Willis McGahee, forcing the turnover on downs.
“It looked like they opened the formation up, got some penetration inside,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick of the back-to-back early short-yardage stops. “There’s a wall of bodies in there, so it’s hard to tell from the sideline, but they didn’t get much movement on the line of scrimmage.”
The second stop came at the end of the game, and was far more dramatic. With the fourth quarter winding to a close, the Patriots holding to that same 27-21 lead and the Ravens on the New England 14, Baltimore faced a fourth-and-4. Flacco dropped back, scrambled and found Mark Clayton, who was standing inside the Patriots’ 10. He catches the ball, and it’s first down, Baltimore, with roughly 30 seconds left.
But Clayton bobbled, and then dropped the football — with some help from defensive backs Darius Butler and McGowan. Ballgame over. Everyone drive home safely.
“[Clayton] was just running a quick hitch route at the sticks to get the first down,” Butler said. “I don’t know, I think the ball might have bounced off him before I could make a play on it. Then [Brandon] McGowan came over to finish him off.
“It was a good way to get off the field to end the game.”
It also served as a reminder that on a team filled with so many offensive stars, the New England defense deserves some credit as well for its work in the last two weeks. The Pats held the high-powered Atlanta offense to just one touchdown, and were able to dictate the tempo much of the afternoon to a Ravens offense that, before Sunday, was averaging 430 yards of total offense a game, second-best in the league.
“Maybe y’all gotta start talking about us a little more,” cornerback Leigh Bodden said with a laugh. “No — we can stay under the radar, it doesn’t matter. We’re just a good defense and we’re going to go out there and play. We don’t care about getting the glory or anything like that. We want to get wins, and that’s all that matters at the end of the day.”
They are not perfect — safety Brandon Meriweather recited a litany of problems after the game, including an inability to get off the field on third down (Baltimore was 9-for-14 on third down) and a knack for allowing big plays (the Ravens ran for an average of 6.8 yards per carry, including a 50-yarder from Rice).
“It wasn’t pretty,” said linebacker Adalius Thomas.
But in the end, it was enough to make a difference in Sunday’s win.
“[They] played well enough — that’s a good offensive team,” Belichick said of the New England defense. “[Baltimore has] got good skill players. They’ve got real good [running] backs, good quarterback, well-coached. We had our hands full. We made enough plays to win. We stopped them on fourth down twice in the fourth quarter. That’s when you’ve got to be there, and luckily, we were.”
Here are nine other things we learned on Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
THE PATRIOTS ARE CAPABLE OF EXECUTING SUCCESSFULLY IN THE RED ZONE
At the start, it looked like it was going to be the same old story for the New England offense in the red zone: The Patriots were given a gift from the start — Eric Alexander forced a fumble on the opening kickoff, and the ball was immediately scooped by Brandon McGowan and placed at the Baltimore 12-yard line.
But New England ended up moving backward — three plays later, the Pats were on the 14, settling for a field goal and a 3-0 lead. However, the Patriots rallied, converting on three of their final four red zone touchdown opportunities, with red zone touchdowns coming on a Brady quarterback sneak, a 12-yard romp from Sammy Morris and a 14-yard pass play from Brady to Moss.
For a team that was 4-for-13 in the red zone entering the day, going against a team that was one of the best in the league in red zone defense, it was a point of pride.
“We ran it in a few times,” Brady said when asked about the difference between this week and last week. “If teams are going to take away some of the passes and double cover our guys, we’re going to have to find ways to run it in, and we did. Those were big plays — that was the difference in the game. We got it in three times and they got it in twice, and that was the difference.”
TOM BRADY MAKES WES WELKER FEEL BETTER
If there was any doubt who Brady feels the most comfortable throwing to, check the stats — in his first action since Week 1, Wes Welker was easily the most-targeted wide receiver on the Patriots. Brady threw 10 passes in his direction, twice as many as any other receiver (Morris, Moss and Sam Aiken each had five passes thrown in their direction). In the end, he came away with a team-high six catches for 48 yards.
Most of them were typical Welker receptions — 8- and 10-yard gains to keep drives alive. He had a 15-yarder late in the second that set up New England’s second touchdown of the day, but looked no worse for wear on the afternoon. Afterward, Brady sounded thankful his security blanket was back in the slot.
“He’s fighting his way back, and made some great plays for us,” Brady said. “He’s a great player. He’s so smart out there and he’s really been wanting to be out there the last couple of weeks. I know he was excited today.”
RAY LEWIS ISN’T THRILLED WITH THE NEW RULES STATING WHAT YOU CAN AND CAN’T DO TO A QUARTERBACK
The Ravens were flagged for nine penalties and 85 yards on the afternoon, including two roughing-the-passer calls that made a huge difference in the game. The first was called on defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, who swatted at Brady’s helmet late in the first quarter. It moved the ball from the Ravens’ 37 to the 22, allowed the Patriots to stay on the field after misfiring on a third down and set up New England’s first touchdown of the game, a 1-yard plunge from Tom Brady to give the Patriots a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The second came with just over five minutes left in the second quarter and went against linebacker Terrell Suggs, who came in low on the quarterback. The penalty moved the ball from the Baltimore 43 to the 27 — two plays later, the Patriots were celebrating their second touchdown of the day, a 12-yard run by Morris that made the score 17-7.
After the game, Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis went off, saying the calls were “embarrassing to the game.”
“You can’t do that. Brady’s good enough to make a play. Let him make his own play,’ Lewis said. “You can’t end the play like that, and then throw the flag. No, man. The embarrassing part is when he understands that, and he walks up to one of us and says, ‘Oh, that was a cheap one.’
“That’s not football. And that’s the embarrassing part about it. Two great teams going at it, like them go at it. But you can’t stop drives like that, you can’t throw flags and say, ‘Oh, you touched the quarterback.’ Put flags on them. Put a red buzzer on them, so if we touch them, they’re down. But you can’t do that, when a guy’s on the ground, it’s over.
“Both of the drives they got touchdowns on — personal fouls that kept the drives going. That’s embarrassing to our game. Fine me, do whatever you please. I’m not speaking against anybody. It’s embarrassing, for them to treat one person on the football field different than everybody else.
“That’s what’s embarrassing about this game. You can not do that. You've got to let the game take care of itself like it just did. But when you call penalties like that, it takes away from the love of the game, because you can get a Tom Brady to walk by you and say, ‘Oh, that’s a cheap one.’ Wow.”
TOM BRADY, ON THE OTHER HAND, HAS NO PROBLEM WITH THEM
Brady wasn’t going to speak ill of the stricter new rules, even if his own defense has been flagged a few times this season because of them. After the game, he confessed he wasn’t all that upset when defenders get angry about being flagged.
“Certainly not. No way,” he said with a smile. “Are you kidding me? They’ve got to find ways. We’re holding the ball, we’re unprotected, just sitting there defenseless, so they’ve got to stay away from me. They deserve to get flagged.”
Brady seemed to take particular delight after the flag was throw on Suggs — it was a play where the linebacker was around the quarterback’s knees. Brady said he had no problem “encouraging” a ref to throw the flag if someone touches his knee.
“Of course,” Brady said. “They can’t go low. We learned that lesson a few years ago. They threw the flag. They threw a couple of flags on our defense, too. It goes both ways out there.”
(Of course, his old teammate wasn’t happy about the developments. “Tom Brady, if you're listening. Take off the skirt and put on some slacks. Toughen up,” Rodney Harrison said during “Football Night in America” Sunday night on NBC.)
RANDY MOSS HASN’T LOST HIS SCORING TOUCH
Through three weeks, Brady and Moss hadn’t had much of an issue operating between the 20s — the first three games of the season, Moss had a team-high 26 catches and a team-high 281 receiving yards. But when they got down near the goal line, things started to fall apart. Entering Sunday’s game, dating back to last season, Moss had just one touchdown in his last five games. (To put things in perspective, through the first three weeks of the 2009 season, Heath Evans had more touchdowns than Randy Moss.)
That all came to an end Sunday, when Moss had his first touchdown catch since last December. He hauled in a 14-yard pass with 2:27 left in the third quarter on an impressive throw-and-catch between the quarterback and wide receiver that showed that while Brady has had some difficulty getting on the same page as his new receivers, he and Moss remain football’s equivalent of Bono and The Edge — always together, always in a perfect rhythm.
With just under three minutes left in the third quarter and the Patriots holding to a 17-14 lead, New England was facing a third-and-4 at the Baltimore 14. Operating out of the shotgun, Moss was split wide left, left alone in single coverage with cornerback Domonique Foxworth. Brady quickly identified a blitzing Ed Reed (who would have likely helped out Foxworth on the play) and lofted the ball not toward Moss, but at a point on the field a yard or two shy of the end zone.
The wide receiver steered the young cornerback where he wanted him to go, giving him a gentle push to get him turned inside out. Meanwhile, Moss cut back from the sideline toward the field and easily gathered in the pass right where it should have been — a yard or two out of the end zone. He walked in, untouched, for the touchdown, the 137th of his career.
“It’s about time,” Brady said of his connection with Moss. “You know, we’re finding our way out there and he’s a huge part of this offense. And we need to keep finding ways to get him the ball down there because he’s able to make those plays. We’re just going to keep at it.”
LEIGH BODDEN REMAINS THE BEST CORNERBACK ON THE TEAM
Bodden had the first interception of the year for the Patriots on Sunday, making a nice swipe of a Joe Flacco pass for Mark Clayton with just over a minute to go in the first half and Baltimore driving deep in New England territory. In what appeared to be a case of miscommunication between wide receiver and quarterback, Bodden was the beneficiary, hauling in the errant throw and tipetoeing along the New England sideline to make sure he stayed inbounds.
The pick was a long time coming — the Patriots defenders had been around the ball for a good chunk of the day, with Gary Guyton tipping one, Guyton almost getting his hands on another and Vince Wilfork knocking a ball down as well. (Butler made a real nice play late in the game in the end zone, breaking up a Flacco pass intended for Clayton.) But it was Bodden, the new cornerback who spent all last season with the winless Lions, who came away with the first of the year.
“Coach talked about getting interceptions,” said Bodden, who pulled in the 14th interception of his career and his first with the Patriots. “Hopefully, that starts it up and gets everybody going to get some interceptions. We had a lot of tipped balls — balls that were up in the air — and unfortunately, guys weren’t around. But they’re going to come, so we just have to keep being patient and play good defense and they’ll come.”
PEOPLE ARE LOSING PATIENCE WITH LAURENCE MARONEY
With just over 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter on Sunday, the Patriots were on the move. Holding a 24-21 lead, New England was looking to kill some clock and keep the ball moving. With the ball on the Baltimore 49-yard line, Tom Brady handed off to running back Laurence Maroney … who promptly lost a yard.
The Gillette Stadium crowd, which has been mostly reticent to boo Maroney, let the running back hear it. Loudly. Maroney came off the field, and a huge cheer went up. Compounding things was the fact that on the very next play, running back Sammy Morris hauled in a short pass from Brady and rumbled for 14 yards, drawing big cheers.
Maroney remains a mystery. A week after leaving the Atlanta game with a thigh injury and seeing Fred Taylor run for over 100 yards against the Falcons, it was believed that this would be a good day for Maroney to bounce back, and he did contribute in the passing game with one reception for 17 yards. In addition, he contributed in the kicking game with four returns for 75 yards.
But his work as a back continues to leave a lot to be desired. Three of his rushes on Sunday went for minus-1 yard, with one going for 2 yards and another for 5. It wasn’t the fearsome Baltimore defense, either — Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Tom Brady had few carries, more yardage and a greater per carry average than Maroney.
On the season, he has 29 carries for 78 yards, an abysmal 2.9 yards per carry. It stands to reason that if the other backs continue to run as well as they have, their carries will keep increasing and Maroney will continue to slide down the depth chart.
THE PATRIOTS SPECIAL TEAMS CONTINUED TO MOVE FORWARD
After a miserable effort in a Week 2 loss to the Jets, many aspects of the New England special teams unit continued to rebound nicely on Sunday. Stephen Gostkowski hit both of his field goal attempts on the day, stretching his streak to 11 straight dating back to the season-opener on Sept. 14. He made all three extra-point attempts and put all six of his kickoffs in the end zone.
In addition, Alexander and McGowan conspired to force a fumble and turnover on the opening kickoff, setting the tone for a physical day for the New England special teams. While the Patriots continue to struggle in the return departments — both kick and punt returns have seen single-digit return averages over the last two weeks — it was another step forward.
“We got some big plays in that area,” Belichick said of New England’s special teams effort. “[We] started the game off with a great tempo to play, knocking the ball off on the kickoff coverage.”
THE MARCH OF THE UNDEFEATEDS WILL CONTINUE
Next Sunday in Denver, New England will keep an unlikely streak going — it will mark the fourth consecutive week the 2009 Patriots will face an undefeated team, five if you include the season-opener against the Bills. Through the first four weeks, New England has faced Buffalo, the New York Jets, Atlanta and Baltimore, all of whom did not have a loss entering their games against the Patriots.
This week, it’ll be Josh McDaniels and the Broncos, who pulled off another last-second victory Sunday, this one against the Cowboys in Denver. New England will be going up against a surprising Denver team that no one would have believed could have made it to 4-0. But such is life this year in the National Football League, where the Broncos are unbeaten and Detroit has more wins than Tennessee and Carolina.
“Hopefully we’ll all go out this week and have a good week of practice and make some improvements,” Brady said. “We’ve got a big opponent this weekend. … They’re undefeated right now in Denver, so it’s going to be a tough matchup for us.”