Patriots now two-way threats

Rough exhibition loss shows their bad side

Cliff Avril was among the Lions defensive linemen who terrorized Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the first half Saturday night. Cliff Avril was among the Lions defensive linemen who terrorized Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the first half Saturday night. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)
By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / August 29, 2011

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DETROIT - After perusing message boards and the Twitterverse, it seems there are two ways that many people are looking at the Patriots’ loss to the Lions Saturday night:

1. It’s only the preseason. Bill Belichick gave his players a loose game plan, and with the regular season starting two weeks from today, New England likely hadn’t spent every moment in the days leading up to the exhibition focused solely on Detroit. The loss is not a big deal.

2. It may be the preseason, but it was the all-important third exhibition game. Belichick said he didn’t have his team prepared, and after being handled on both sides of the ball, New England isn’t looking so great as it heads toward its opener in Miami.

The truth could be somewhere in the middle. Preseason games aren’t always a precursor of regular-season success: In 2008, the Lions went 4-0 in their warm-up games, only to post the NFL’s first 0-16 regular season. That same year, the Patriots were winless in the preseason and went on to win 11 games, posting a first of their own, the first 11-win team not to make the playoffs.

In the four seasons in which they’ve gone to the Super Bowl under Belichick, the Patriots were a combined 10-6 in the preseason, though in 2003 they swept their exhibitions.

With that said, there are still some legitimate concerns about this team after Saturday night’s 34-10 loss.

As Deion Branch noted afterward, the Patriots had been saying there was still work to be done, and now we see there is. It wasn’t all false modesty from Belichick and Co.

But under Belichick, the Patriots rebound better than Dennis Rodman. Since 2003, New England has had but two losing “streaks’’ - and each lasted just two games.

Last year, the Patriots were humiliated in Cleveland, beaten by an opportunistic Browns team led by Eric Mangini for whom the game was their Super Bowl. After the 34-14 setback, however, New England didn’t lose again in the regular season, rattling off eight straight victories. So, the evidence shows that Belichick knows what it takes to right the ship.

Most concerning after the Lions game was the offensive line, specifically pass protection. Tom Brady is the reigning league MVP, and the Patriots had the most potent offense in the NFL last season, averaging 32.4 points per game. Every key player from the unit returned, save for blocking tight end Alge Crumpler, and receiver Chad Ochocinco has been added to the mix.

It is basic football: If the quarterback doesn’t have enough time to throw, the offense won’t be successful. On Saturday night, Brady often had little time before Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, or Cliff Avril was in his face. Hence, in the first half, the Patriots’ possessions ended: punt, field goal, punt, punt, touchdown, interception.

The Patriots punted three times in one half. Last season, they called on punter Zoltan Mesko fewer than four times per game.

Defensive tackles Suh and Williams came through the middle of the line, where Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, and Dan Connolly are typically lined up. Connolly injured his right ankle on the opening kickoff, tried to play through it, but soon was replaced by Rich Ohrnberger, who was feasted upon by Suh.

Mankins said last week that the game against the Lions would show the offensive line if it had made some necessary improvements. When the players reconvene today at Gillette Stadium, Belichick and line coach Dante Scarnecchia almost certainly will have plenty to point out.

Belichick and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien got a head start on the sideline Saturday night when they gathered the offense in the second half for some colorful words.

Defensively, New England didn’t look like the pass-rushing juggernaut it was against Tampa Bay, when Andre Carter and Eric Moore were frequently in the backfield. Going with a starting tandem of Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich bookending tackles Vince Wilfork and Myron Pryor, the first time the Patriots pressured Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was when cornerback Kyle Arrington blitzed and registered a sack in the second quarter. The secondary had a rough night in coverage, as well.

But this isn’t the time to panic. Belichick seemingly does his best work in times like these. Shaun Ellis and Albert Haynesworth have yet to play a down. And Ochocinco appears to be doing everything he can to learn the offense and what Brady expects of him.

If the problems persist in the opener, fire up the message boards and clog up Twitter. For now, just look at Saturday as a tuneup that went awry. There’s time to fix things before Miami.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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