Check the Film: Defensive breakdowns continue to rear their ugly head
Big plays in the passing game fueled an explosive Seattle offense on Sunday Night. David Butler II/USA Today Sports
After each Patriots game, I'll be taking a look at the game film via NFL Game Rewind and posting my observations. This week, I had no choice but to take a closer look at a defense that looked helpless all night against Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense.
There was plenty to dissect from Sunday Night's hard fought loss to the Seahawks, but the continued failings of the defense couldn't be avoided in this week's film breakdown. Patriots fans, already concerned with the eminently bendable nature of the defense prior to the controversial Jamie Collins trade, spent the entire bye week speculating on how the defense could be fixed despite the sudden loss of such an explosive playmaker. Needless to say, it was nothing short of disheartening to see the defense gashed the way they were, particularly against a Seattle offense that has sputtered for much of the 2016 season.
Just how bad was it? Seattle scored on seven of their nine meaningful possessions of the game, with each of those scoring drives covering at least nine plays and 48 yards. There were enough good situational plays sprinkled in to make Seattle settle for field goals four times, but the Seahawks still managed to put 31 points on the board against a defense that had previously been able to hang it's hat on points allowed stats that belied the yardage totals they had surrendered. Bend but don't break doesn't work if nearly every time you take the field, the opponent at least winds up in field goal range.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the defensive performance was the rate they were allowing big plays in the passing game. The Pats typically design their coverage schemes specifically to prevent explosive "chunk" plays, but gave up a whopping nine plays of 18 or more yards Sunday. Six of their seven scoring drives were bolstered by an explosive play through the air. Furthermore, every Seattle pass catcher with more than one target in the game wound up with at least one such play.
That was established early for Seattle, as their second offensive play saw Russell Wilson hit Tyler Lockett for 36 drive-starting yards. The Patriots were in man coverage on the play, with Justin Coleman matched up on Seattle's explosive second year wideout. Coleman was simply beat on the play, as Lockett used his exceptional route-running to "stack" Coleman on his vertical route. A great route and even better throw, but not a good start for Coleman, who has been unable to lock down the same nickel corner role he held for much of 2015.
The Seahawks would go back to that well early in their next possession. A Trey Flowers/Malcom Brown sack on first drive got the possession off to a positive start for the Patriots, setting up an opportunity to get off the field with a three-and-out. However, third-and-five saw Wilson once again find Lockett against Coleman, who once again let the speedy Seattle receiver get behind his man coverage. This time, Coleman managed to get back into the play to bat the pass away, but replay confirmed the call on the field of defensive pass interference. Instead of getting off the field, Seattle had another drive starting gain of 20 yards.
Seattle's next explosive play came three snaps later on the same drive and highlighted the loss of Jamie Collins. On third and six, the Hawks lined up in a trips left formation, with Lockett, Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin. They then motioned running back CJ Prosise, a former college receiver, from right to left, ultimately lining up on the wing of the trips formation.
While rookie Elandon Roberts took the bulk of the snaps next to Dont'a Hightower, he was subbed out for Shea McClellin on obvious passing downs. That was the case here, as McClellin followed Prosise's motion, a dead giveaway of his assignment in man coverage. Seattle took advantage with a Patriots-esque play design that isolated McClellin in space against the shifty Prosise. Kearse and Baldwin both push their routes vertical, drawing their defenders away from the left flat, while Lockett runs ashallow crossing route to drag Coleman with him away from the play's design. Prosise fakes a quick slant inside before sharply planting and pivoting back outside, essentially turning the route into a modified wheel route. Caught in a clear mismatch, McClellin stumbles trying to mirror his route and never catches up, with Prosise taking advantage of the space cleared out by Kearse and Baldwin to gobble up 18 yards in addition to the first down.
Seattle's next drive saw the defense squander yet another opportunity to get off the field. This time, on third and seven, the Seahawks once again used pre-snap motion to get the Patriots to "show" their coverage (Justin Coleman following Lockett's motion indicated man coverage) before using another well designed play to take advantage of the generous cushion New England's cornerbacks were giving.
Once again, Seattle is utilizing a bunch formation, this time to the right of the line. It's a common tactic to beat man coverage, as bunching receivers tightly together naturally creates traffic that defenders must navigate through perfectly in order to stick with their assignments. Here, Jimmy Graham pushes his route vertically, creating space for Kearse and Baldwin to run in-breaking routes underneath. Malcolm Butler shows excellent recovery speed to catch up with Baldwin but, despite seeming to recognize the play instantly, Logan Ryan is a step late in catching up to Kearse. He then compounds that problem by missing the tackle, allowing Kearse to gain an extra 10 yards after the catch. Again, credit the offense for a well-designed play, but consider that a stop could've been made with better execution here.
On a side note, notice the usage of Devin McCourty on that play, as the Pro Bowl safety is lined up at his former position, outside corner. The ability of Duron Harmon to play McCourty's typical role as a single high safety frees the Patriots to utilize McCourty's man coverage ability elsewhere if need be. The Patriots have used him occasionally in that way in specific matchups (he's tracked pass catching Bills tight end Charles Clay from time to time, for example), but hasn't seen much time as a true outside corner. With the likes of Ryan, Coleman and Eric Rowe (who was surprisingly inactive Sunday) struggling to solidify depth roles opposite Butler, McCourty's ability to play corner is worth considering in the future.
The defense would finally get a stop on the Seahawks next possession, and followed that up with a touchdown drive to retake the lead. However, just as they did in the Super Bowl two years ago, the Pats failed to stop the Seahawks from marching right down the field and scoring just before the half. The Pats mixed up zone and man coverage pretty evenly throughout the game but went with zone almost exclusively on this series, often rushing just three and dropping eight into coverage. Theoretically, that should give a major numerical advantage to the defense, who are covering five receivers with eight players. However, with the already suspect pass rush at a numbers disadvantage, Russell Wilson had plenty of time to extend the play and wait for holes to open up in the Patriots zones. That's exactly what happened on the Hawks two explosive plays of the drive: a 24 yarder to Lockett and the drive-capping 18 yard touchdown to Baldwin.
Those two plays illustrated the danger of combining zone coverage with a lack of pass rush. It's very difficult to maintain any time of coverage for a prolonged time in the NFL, but zone can be extra hard to maintain due to the discipline and communication it requires from all players in coverage. The Baldwin touchdown was a perfect example, as there appeared to be a miscommunication between Logan Ryan and Patrick Chung on the play.
This screen shot shows the moment where Ryan passes Baldwin off into what appears to be Chung's zone. This appears to be a cover 3 zone, with the boundary corners and deep safety each responsible for a deep third of the field. For the Seahawks, Jimmy Graham and Jermaine Kearse each run deep routes into the end zone, dragging those deep third defenders (Duron Harmon and Malcolm Butler) with them. As you can see, this clears up plenty of space underneath (where #22 CJ Prosise is available for a checkdown) and in the space just before the end zone. It's impossible to tell exactly who was at fault for the the breakdown, but it looked like Ryan expected Chung to be deeper and in better position to pick-up Baldwin on his deep crossing pattern. Instead, Chung doesn't even see Baldwin coming into his zone behind him until Wilson already has. The result is an easy touchdown that regains the lead for the Seahawks, killing all the momentum the Patriots had generated going into halftime.
The Pats had regained momentum at the start of the second half, forcing a three-and-out defensively before marching down the field for a go-ahead touchdown. However, Seattle quickly snagged momentum back upon getting the ball back, hitting little-used fourth receiver Paul Richardson for a 39 yard drive starter on second down. They only managed 13 yards on the other 10 plays of the drive, but that big play put them in range for a field goal that regained the lead.
Again, it's impossible to truly know who was responsible for a busted play without knowing the defensive play call and assignments. However, the tape makes it clear that something was awry with the coverage, which once again appears to be a "deep thirds" cover 3.
The first breakdown here comes from an effective play action fake, which draws in both linebackers as well as Devin McCourty. As a result, Dont'a Hightower is late dropping into his zone, giving Wilson a window to make the throw (his lunching attempt to swat the ball away proved to be futile). Then, the route combination by the Seahawks puts stress on the Patriots defenders. Baldwin, the Seahawks best receiver, is running a vertical go route. Despite good coverage from Butler, that occupies the attention of Harmon, who as the single high safety is responsible to keep everything in front of him. Meanwhile, Richardson runs an in-cut right into the space in front of Harmon. As Richardson's route moves further and further inside, Ryan appears to cut off his coverage, this time expecting Harmon to pick him up. Harmon's hesitation, brought on by the threat of Baldwin's deep route, gives Wilson plenty of space to hit Richardson over the middle. He then takes advantage of poor pursuit angles by both Ryan and Harmon, gobbling up plenty of yards after the catch.
The Seahawks would take advantage of yet another breakdown on their next possession, opening up with a 19 yarder to Jimmy Graham. The Pats did a good job for the most part of limiting Graham's impact on the game (he finished with four catches for 48 yards), but this was an inexcusable breakdown, especially given the time it came in the game. Once again, play action was a factor in the play. Both Hightower and Elandon Roberts came crashing hard downhill in response to Wilson's play fake. However, the biggest culprit here is Patrick Chung, who follows Graham's pre-snap motion from left to right, signifying his man assignment. Drawn in by the play fake, Chung hesitates and is far too late to react to Graham, who quietly leaks out into the left flat in the opposite direction of the play-fake. With the rest of the defense in man coverage, there is no one there to account for Graham, who makes an easy, wide-open catch before motoring down the field for a big gain.
Despite that breakdown, two straight good defensive plays set up a third-and-six and opportunity to get off the field and get the ball back to the offense. That third and six resulted in one final dagger of a big play, this one being a 38 yard bomb to Prosise. This came in spite of the Patriots playing the style of defense that many (myself included) have been clamoring for: matchup based man coverage, with a single high safety over the top.
This play serves as an example of the danger that kind of coverage brings. The Pats have essentially five one on one matchups, four of which the win with smothering coverage. However, it only takes one lost matchup for man coverage to turn disastrous, and that's what happened here. Despite giving a considerable cushion, Elandon Roberts simply isn't fast enough to cope with a former receiver running a notoriously tough to defend wheel route. It's certainly a play where you have to tip your cap to the opposition, who ran a great route, made a great throw, and made a great catch despite a crunching hit from McCourty.
However, it's an example of one of the many problems with the current Patriots defense. Prosise was a problem for them all night, catching all 7 of his targets for 87 yards. When the Patriots played zone, Wilson was happy to take the checkdowns that were readily available to Prosise over the middle. When they played man, Prosise was a mismatch, victimizing both Roberts and McClellin, the two linebackers tasked with replacing Jamie Collins.
It's not fair nor realistic to assume that Collins makes the plays Roberts and McClellin failed too against Prosise. However, would he had been a better coverage option on those plays. It's hard to say otherwise with the image of McClellin stumbling out of his breaks like a cartoon character on a banana peel still fresh in my mind.
With that said, the lack of a reliable coverage linebacker was just one of many issues that plagued the Patriots all night. While the pass rush did get through for three sacks, they didn't manage nearly enough pressure given the horrid play the Seahawks offensive line has put out all season. When they played man coverage, the Hawks were able to find mismatches to exploit. That's on the players, many of whom (Logan Ryan and Justin Coleman in particular) simply need to play better. When they played zone, miscommunication led to several embarrassing busted plays.
That's the scariest takeaway from this loss. It's abundantly clear at this point that there isn't any quick fix that will magically transform this defense into the one we thought we had entering the season. There isn't one personnel move or schematic twist that will suddenly transform a unit with this many issues. Simply put, the execution isn't at the level it needs to be at any level of the defense, regardless of the playcalling. A second half schedule loaded with offensive cupcakes should message their statistical performance, but can a defense that looks this disjointed 10 weeks into the season turn it around and find their identity? With only seven regular season games left, time is no longer on their side.