FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Something’s not right with the New England Patriots.
The defending Super Bowl champs lost their opener to the Chiefs. Tom Brady, sacked only 15 times last season, has already been dumped 16 times. The 40-year-old has taken 28 hits compared to 33 all least season.
Ten days ago, in Tampa, the Buccaneers almost knocked off the visiting Patriots before losing, 19-14, in a game where Brady looked weary and beaten up after getting sacked three times.
And during the days leading up to Sunday’s clash with the Jets, the Patriots had to answer questions about why the defense is so poor.
Defense is what Bill Belichick is noted for. After five weeks, the Patriots are last in that department, averaging an alarming 447.2 yards per game. They are last against the pass allowing 323 yards per game and 30th in points given up at 28.4.
What’s going on?
“You always got [No.] 12 back there so it’s always going to be the Patriots,” Jets cornerback Buster Skrine said. “Everybody thinks they’re down because of a 3-2 record. But I think they’re playing pretty good ball. It’s going to be a tough matchup this week but we feel confident.”
One more thing with the Patriots, they play the Jets Sunday at MetLife Stadium with first-place on the line in the AFC East.
The earth must be flat.
“No team is invincible,” Skrine said. “We went in both games last year thinking we could win. We didn’t get that done. We’re confident every game you got to line up and put the football down and play ball. But nobody is invincible.”
But it’s the Patriots, the five-time Super Bowl champions with the second-best winning percentage in sports since 1994.
“Well, I think we’re trying to make improvements,” Brady said. “I’d say we’ve been pretty inconsistent with how our level of play has been, so we’re trying to make improvements in those things. We go out to practice and we’re trying to make it better. We’ll see. We’re facing a tough test on the road, a place we’ve always had a tough time playing, so we’ve got to figure out how to get a win.”
Offensively the Patriots appear fine thanks to what Brady has been able to do. He’s completed at least 30 passes in three games this season despite a running game that’s averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. Letting LeGarrette Blount leave in free agency might be one major problem with the run game. Brady, however, is asked to do so much more now until the run game solves its problems.
Brady continues to have what Jets defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers calls, “plug and play” offensive performers. Speed and quick receivers such as Chris Hogan (23 catches) and Danny Amendola (23 catches) who make plays on slants and deep patterns. Running back James White, who leads the team with 29 catches, needs attention on wheel routes and dump offs.
And then there’s tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has 20 catches through four games and remains a hard cover for linebackers and safeties.
As an offense, the Pats average 419.4 yards per game and 6.2 yards per play.
“I always feel like we’re always trying to, ultimately, throw the ball to the area of the field where the defense isn’t,” Brady said. “If it’s deep, it’s deep. If it’s short, it’s short. I think there’s been a little more efficiency down the field which has been good. We just have to keep it up.”
Questions about Brady’s health is always a mystery given the answers provided to reporters. Yet he caused alarms to go off when he missed one day of practice with an AC joint sprain in his non-throwing shoulder. Brady and Belichick said the quarterback is fine and he’ll be ready for the Jets.
Still, there’s something about these hits that can take a toll on a player.
“We have noticed Tom Brady holds onto the ball a little bit longer than he usually does,” Jets defensive end Leonard Williams said. “They’ve given up more sacks at the start of the season than they had all of last season, already. For us that’s definitely given us something to look forward to, getting after the quarterback. We know he’s the leader of the offense. If we can get to him and affect him as much as possible, it can affect the game.”
On defense, the Patriots struggles can be attributed to missing talented linebacker Dont’a Hightower for two weeks with a knee injury, the front four and secondary issues.
The Patriots defense had to contain quarterbacks Alex Smith, Drew Brees, Deshaun Watson, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston to start the season, that’s difficult for any defense.
This week it’s Josh McCown and Belichick heaped praise on the Jets’ 38-year old quarterback, who has never beaten him.
“They’ve had ten days to prepare for us,” Jets offensive coordinator John Morton said. Knowing Coach Belichick, who knows what we’re going to get?
“We have to be prepared for everything. All of the times that I have gone against him, you have to be prepared for every little thing that can happen. He can change the whole defense, so we’ve talked about that in our meetings.”
The Patriots and Jets are tied for first-place in the AFC East. Let that soak in a minute. First place. Are the Patriots the same dominating group that’s won five Super Bowls and possesses a winning percentage of .692 since 1994?
Could this young Jets team actually pull off the upset?
“When you’re in a division game, you know that counts,” McCown said. “With it being the Patriots and everything, if you want to find extra juice you can find extra juice. But my only response to that is if you have that, than where was that the first five weeks. You try to treat it as the same as you can and go about your weekly process, prepare and get ready to go.”
The Patriots have fared remarkably well in Game 6, losing only once since 2010. Here’s how they looked going into their sixth game:
2016 4-1Won SB
20155-0Lost AFC champ.
20134-1Lost AFC champ.
20123-2Lost AFC champ.
20104-1Lost division PO