The Patriots coaches, led by Bill Belichick, are almost always on the ball when it comes to in-game management and decision-making.
That was not the case Sunday in Seattle during the inexplicable 24-23 loss to the Seahawks.
Yes, the players, as a whole, did not play well in all three phases of a game.
But from this vantage point, they played well enough to emerge with a victory if some critical mistakes and risky decisions weren’t made by the coaches.
The laundry list of issues/questions:
■ Even before Tom Brady’s intentional grounding penalty, the possession to end the first half was a debacle. The Patriots started the drive with two timeouts and 40 seconds left. It’s inexcusable for the coaches to waste 15 seconds after the Wes Welker catch before a timeout was called with 19 seconds left. Then they wasted another four seconds after the next play. Considering how they butchered that sequence, the Patriots just should have kicked the field goal. But they pushed their luck, probably thinking of the score against the Ravens in the same situation that came with seven seconds and one timeout in their pocket, and went for the score with six seconds and no timeout. The lack of a timeout against the Seahawks pushed the risk over the top. The Patriots cost themselves at least 3 points, if not more, because of time management — not Brady’s intentional grounding.
■ The Patriots should not have burned the first of their three timeouts with 1:50 left in the third quarter. Being forced to take one because of a defensive look is fine. But that’s not what happened. Brady liked the play call and was going through the silent count. The Seahawks still were trying to get lined up, but Belichick called the timeout. The problem was that the team broke the huddle with 11 seconds on the play clock. That shouldn’t happen.
■ On third and 2 at the Seattle 17 with 10:06 left in the fourth quarter, why did the Patriots run into a stacked nine-man box? The Patriots were in tight, but with Welker and Deion Branch in H-back roles. I didn’t mind the formation, but how about a check to a pass by Brady? Was there really a high chance for success running behind Branch?
■ The second burned timeout, with 5:35 left, also shouldn’t have happened. From the time Stevan Ridley was tackled on first down, the Patriots had 48 seconds of real time to get a play off but failed to do so — for no good reason.
■ The Patriots came out of that timeout and ran for 9 yards with Danny Woodhead, to give them 15 rushing yards on back-to-back plays. The clock was at 4:55, the Patriots had the ball at the 47-yard line, and they looked poised for a game-killing drive. What did offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels call on the next play? Shotgun formation with no running backs, and Brady threw an incompletion — the first of three straight (including a grounding penalty). The Patriots punted at 4:07. The problem with running the ball — even out of shotgun — in that situation was . . . what exactly?
■ This was perhaps the second-most maddening sequence. The defense delivered a crucial three-and-out and the Patriots got the ball back with 3:02 remaining. McDaniels sent on his “load” package with no receivers: running back Ridley, guard Dan Connolly at fullback, and tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Daniel Fells, and lineman Nick McDonald. With virtually no threat to pass, the Patriots ran for 1 yard on back-to-back plays before an incompletion on third down. Let me get this straight. Before this drive, you passed 54 times and ran 24 because you correctly assessed the Seahawks were going to be tough to run against. It was a smart plan. Yet when the Seahawks know you’re going to run the ball, the plan was to run it without the defense even having to contemplate a pass? McDaniels has done a lot of good things in his return to the Patriots, but in every game he has some sort of episode of overthinking. This personnel group was a perfect example. Why not go with regular personnel and give Brady the option of winning the game with a pass if the Seahawks sold out against the run?
■ After the Seahawks got the ball back with 2:38 to play, the Patriots didn’t get lined up correctly — on first down, mind you — and Russell Wilson easily ran around the vacated right end. Personnel confusion again reigned on second down, and the Patriots were forced to burn their final timeout.
■ The clock was running at 1:29 and the Patriots had their base defensive personnel on the field against the Seahawks’ two backs, one tight end, and two receivers. That would be great outside of the final 90 seconds of the game. Why did the Patriots care if the Seahawks ran the ball at the New England 46-yard line? Why did the Patriots fall for play-action? The Seahawks weren’t grinding the clock for a game-winning field goal, they needed to score a touchdown with one timeout. Yes, the Seahawks basically ran a two-man route. The Patriots should have had it covered with their Cover 2 (two deep safeties) zone scheme. But when three of the four defensive backs — including both safeties — are rookies playing their sixth NFL games (cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and safeties Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner), wouldn’t the prudent thing have been to err on the side of caution with extra pass defenders?
Here are the positional ratings against the Seahawks:
Quarterback (1 out of 5)
Brady had 10 standout plays against the tough Seahawks, which is good work, but they were evened out by 10 poorly thrown passes or decisions. Add in the two interceptions and two grounding penalties, and you have Brady’s poorest game in some time — barely edging the regular-season loss to the Giants last season when he was battling an elbow injury. On third and 10 with 4:51 left in the first half, Brady had a nice, subtle throw slightly behind Welker, which allowed him to split the defenders for the first down. If Brady led him, he might not have bounded off the tackle of linebacker K.J. Wright. Not a good throw by Brady to Woodhead right before the end of the first half. If Brady leads Woodhead even a little bit away from LB Bobby Wagner, Woodhead probably would have scored with ease. Instead, Brady threw low and to the inside. The interception by Richard Sherman in front of Branch was just a bad decision under no pressure. Welker was open crossing underneath. The interception that tipped off Welker’s hands could have been caught, but it was thrown too hard and Welker got drilled. To get no points there was bad football.
Running backs ( 4 out of 5)
Just a tremendous game from Woodhead, especially the run on third and 6 to start the second half when he carried 284-pound Greg Scruggs for 3 yards.
Receivers (3.5 out of 5)
Some really good play, especially by Welker and Brandon Lloyd, but some sloppiness in there as well from Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski is really beat up and gutting it out for the team. The 46-yard touchdown to Welker was the same play as the Super Bowl. Perfect play call by McDaniels against quarters coverage. Welker faked a corner route but continued on a fade. Amazing how it worked when Brady led Welker instead of throwing back-shoulder. Is there any reason Lloyd always ends up on the ground? On a nice little slant late in the third quarter he lost his footing with no one around him.
Offensive line ( 4 out of 5)
Only 12 total quarterback pressures on 60 dropbacks (including penalties) is really good work, even if the Seahawks blitzed just five times (8.3 percent). In order of performance: Logan Mankins (playing on one leg again), Ryan Wendell (hurry, knockdown), Connolly (two hurries), Sebastian Vollmer (1.5 knockdowns, hurry, penalty), and Nate Solder (sack, two knockdowns, two hurries). The Patriots are going to have to address Wendell’s exaggerated head bob before the snap. Looks like the Seahawks timed it at least four times on big plays.
Defensive line ( 3.5 out of 5)
Mostly good stuff here, but everyone wants to dump on the secondary for giving up big plays. On the eight plays of 15 yards or more the Patriots gave up, Russell Wilson averaged four seconds on his release time. That’s an eternity. The Patriots blitzed on 27.3 percent of the 33 dropbacks. That’s a lot for them. They had five of their 12 total quarterback pressures (41.7 percent) on blitzes. Jermaine Cunningham messed up pocket containment on two of the longest gains: the 50-yard pass to Doug Baldwin, and the throw to Sidney Rice that resulted in a 40-yard pass interference penalty against Patrick Chung. Terrific games from Chandler Jones (1.5 sacks, two hurries, knockdown) and Vince Wilfork (two hurries, knockdown).
Linebackers (4 out of 5)
Big games from Brandon Spikes (two knockdowns, two tackles for loss) and Rob Ninkovich (half-sack, hurry, two half-run stuffs), but two big missed tackles from Spikes and Jerod Mayo (third down) for a combined 25 extra yards. Mayo had a big forced fumble, but he had a hard time in coverage.
Secondary (1 out of 5)
It’s a shame Wilson misplayed the final touchdown because he was much improved over the Broncos game. Dennard has his fair share of technique issues, but he takes coaching well. He’s going places.
Special teams ( 4 out of 5)
Great work, especially by Matthew Slater, until Zoltan Mesko’s final punt that had only 3.27 seconds of hang time and, along with zero containment from Sterling Moore, enabled Leon Washington’s 25-yard return that set up the Seahawks for the winning score. Huge miscue.