Patriots offense couldn’t click on third down

The Patriots inexcusably lost to the Cardinals, 20-18, Sunday, and it didn’t happen because of play calling, the referees, the offensive line, or special teams (though the latter certainly didn’t help).

It happened because of the offense’s mind-numbing lack of execution on third down that brought back memories of the final quarter and a half of the Super Bowl.

The Cardinals tried time and time again to give the Patriots the game, but the Patriots would have none of it. And it’s because they’re discombobulated on offense. Tom Brady is trying to get used to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels again. Brady is trying to get comfortable with receiver Brandon Lloyd while being force-fed Julian Edelman. And a cobbled-together line is trying to gain a rhythm that is lacking after not playing together for any of training camp.

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The offense is a work in progress, but it will get there — as soon as they start converting on third downs. They were just 5 of 15 (33 percent), the first time they have been below 40 percent since last Nov. 21 against the Chiefs, which concluded a four-week stretch in the 30 percent range.

The ineptitude against the Cardinals — just 2 of 6 on third downs less than 5 yards — had to have the Patriots pulling their hair out:

  Third and 9, New England 49-yard line, 14:53 second quarter: Brady forced a pass to Lloyd on the sideline while under a little bit of pressure. On the coaches’ film, Rob Gronkowski seemed to be the better option in man coverage underneath.

  Third and 2, Arizona 11, 9:56 second quarter: Little trap play over left guard with Donald Thomas pulling. It should have worked but tight end Michael Hoomanawanui allowed linebacker Sam Acho to cross his face and take down Danny Woodhead for no gain.

  Third and 4, Arizona 47, 46 seconds second quarter: Brady was sacked after 3.95 seconds but got skittish at 2.34 seconds. There was nothing wrong with the pocket. On the film, you can see why Brady didn’t want to throw. The Cardinals were playing a trap coverage (corner passes off receiver to a deep safety and sinks to jump an inside route; they ran this a lot) on both Gronkowski and Wes Welker. Brady didn’t appear to have much of anything. But he did have more time.

  Third and 10, Arizona 33, 13:03 third quarter: Cardinals came with a rare zone exchange pressure but it was picked up well, and Brady delivered a strong pass to Welker. Sure looked like cornerback William Gay hit Welker before the ball arrived and should have drawn a penalty. Gronkowski had man coverage.

  Third and 9, New England 11, 9:53 third quarter: Left tackle Nate Solder gave up a quarterback knockdown to Acho in 2.38 seconds on an inside rush, but Brady delivered a perfect pass over the right shoulder of Gay to Welker, who dropped the pass.

  Third and 6, Arizona 30, 3:27 third quarter: Patriots were going to run a throwback to Brady but Thomas allowed Darnell Dockett to cross his face and take down Woodhead for a 9-yard loss. Not even sure the play would have worked because the Cardinals were in Cover 3.

  Third and 1, Arizona 39, 12:37 fourth quarter: Thomas had to execute a reach block on Dockett on his outside shoulder, which is very tough. You have to wonder if right tackle Marcus Cannon was supposed to lend a hand for a second before continuing with his block. Hoomanawanui didn’t cover himself in glory against Patrick Peterson.

  Third and 10, Arizona 35, 6:54 fourth quarter: Brady steps up and fires to Gronkowski but it’s broken up on a really nice play by linebacker Darryl Washington, who subtly held Gronkowski. Woodhead sneaked out of the backfield uncovered.

Missed opportunities galore, especially in Cardinals territory.

The positional ratings:

Quarterback (2.5 out of 5): Brady made double the amount of good throws in this game as he did against the Titans, but he again left some plays on the field. Not sure why Gronkowski didn’t get the ball more. The Cardinals didn’t pay him any extra attention. Brady just seems uncomfortable with the entire offense right now — calls, personnel, everything. Of the 12 quarterback pressures (four sacks, six hurries, two knockdowns), three could be attributed to Brady (1.5 sacks, 1.5 hurries). It was one of those jittery games we see every now and again in which he feels pressure that isn’t there. On first down with 3:50 to go, Brady made a curious decision to throw deep to Welker in the end zone when he had Gronkowski matched up in man coverage with safety Kerry Rhodes underneath. McDaniels must have said something to Brady in his helmet because they ran almost the same play again on the next play, and Brady hit Gronkowski underneath for 12 yards.

Running backs (4 out of 5): Stevan Ridley had another two broken tackles for 10 total yards. He added a nice catch and two very good run reads. He may have picked the wrong hole only once. That’s Ridley’s biggest improvement. Woodhead had a nice blitz pickup.

Receivers (4 out of 5): Outside of the drops by Welker, Lloyd, and Gronkowski, this group did great work, especially Gronkowski and Lloyd (eight combined tough catches). Welker had two great catches (on the sideline before halftime, and down the seam to start the second half). Brady and Lloyd again misfired on a play in the end zone. Brady saw the other safety and wanted Lloyd to go straight up the field. Lloyd thought he had the angle on the safety and stayed on the post. Looked like Lloyd was right on the film.

Offensive line (3 out of 5): This group did not give up nearly as much at it appeared with 12 quarterback pressures in 48 dropbacks. The .25 pressures per attempt was exactly the same as the opener against the Titans. The entire offense struggled in the run games, with 12 run stuffs allowed. Both Logan Mankins (hurry, knockdown, three stuffs) and Thomas (half-sack, half-hurry, three stuffs, penalty) had a tough time because they were asked to execute reach blocks all day against Calais Campbell and Dockett. Those guys are darn good. On the Quintin Groves sack in the second quarter, Ryan Wendell (half-sack, two stuffs) likely should have given help on the stunt. The Patriots had trouble blocking Acho all over the field, even on little bubble screens like the one on the second play of the second half. It went for 4 yards, but if Solder (2.5 hurries, knockdown) makes his block on Acho, it could have been more. The Patriots had those types of minor miscues all day.

Defensive line (4.5 out of 5): Not quite as flawless as the opener — the Cardinals gashed them a few times — but very, very good. The Patriots’ one sack, eight hurries, five knockdowns, and seven stuffed runs were mostly by the line. Chandler Jones (seven impact plays) led the way again, but Rob Ninkovich (two hurries, half-knockdown, two plus run tackles) was back involved. The mountains in the middle, Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love, combined for a sack, two hurries, a half-knockdown, a holding penalty, and a plus run tackle. On the first Wildcat snap to cornerback Peterson, either Jones or Jerod Mayo (likely Jones) didn’t properly force the play to the sideline.

Linebackers (4.5 out of 5): All three starters were terrific. The Patriots dodged some bullets thanks to the inaccuracy of Kevin Kolb. On third and 3 after the Brady interception, the Patriots were bluffing blitz and playing Cover 1 with the deep safety rolling over the top of Larry Fitzgerald. That left man coverage all over the field, including Dont’a Hightower against Todd Heap, who was wide open for a touchdown. Kolb missed the throw. An even worse play by Kolb was the third-and-2 pass to a wide-open LaRod Stephens-Howling out of the backfield that Kolb rushed for no reason. It might have gone for a touchdown. One of the Cardinals coaches was just irate with Kolb. Terrific play by Brandon Spikes right before halftime to bring down Beanie Wells for a 3-yard loss. Spikes read his keys perfectly, took on the pulling guard, and then took the running back down. Somebody didn’t fill the gap on the Kolb 5-yard touchdown run, likely Spikes, although Mayo nearly saved the play. Great play by Spikes to hit his gap on the final forced fumble. But what in the heck were the Cardinals thinking by (a) not taking a knee, and (b) running a toss play? Unbelievable.

Secondary (3.5 out of 5): Not sure why Patrick Chung and Sterling Moore didn’t switch on the pick play where Andre Roberts scored from 2 yards. Usually the Patriots do, but that’s all dependent on game plan and the opponent. The 28-yard pass from Kolb to Heap in the third quarter was just a debacle. Love and Ninkovich missed the sack, Kyle Arrington missed a tackle that allowed another 18 yards, and Steve Gregory (late hit) and Spikes (roughing) had penalties. Underrated play by Tavon Wilson on third and 8 late in the game when the Cardinals ran a shovel pass to Early Doucet for no gain.

Special teams (1 out of 5): The Patriots had one punt blocked (Nate Ebner) and should have had another (Brandon Bolden), as the rookies struggled. Stephen Gostkowski’s stellar day with four field goals (two over 50 yards) was ruined with his over-kick of the final kickoff (what a blunder by Stephens-Howling not taking it out) and the 42-yarder that he dead pulled. Bolden drew a kickoff holding penalty from former Patriot James Sanders. Missed punt tackle by Tracy White. Zoltan Mesko’s 39-yard punt in the third quarter should have been downed.