FOXBOROUGH — No one said the word, but the overwhelming feeling among the Patriots’ secondary after Sunday’s 33-30 loss to the Panthers was one of embarrassment.
“We’re not proud of it, you can say that,” cornerback Jonathan Jones said.
Well, good. At least they’re not whistling past the graveyard.
Before this game, and for the previous 19 games he had played dating back to his MVP season of 2015, the question everyone asked about Cam Newton was, “What’s wrong with him?”
After Sunday -- and after facing the Patriots -- the common refrain? “Cam’s back!”
Only the 2017 Patriots secondary could make Newton, on a beautiful crisp autumn afternoon at Gillette, look like his former all-world self. Newton completed 71.1 percent of his passes, the ninth-highest mark of his career and his best day since the conclusion of the ’15 season. He had completed at least 60 percent of his passes only six times in his previous 19 starts, none better than 65 percent. Yet Newton, who entered with a career completion percentage of 58.5, completed 84.6 percent in the first half against these Patriots.
Then, there are the big plays. The Patriots allowed another five pass plays over 20 yards. They entered the game third in the league with 14 allowed. At their current pace, the Patriots would give up 76 pass plays over 20 yards this season, their highest total since 2011.
Oh yes, the 2011 Patriots. The only comparable I can think of to the start of this season was that ’11 secondary. Those Patriots featured Devin McCourty (in his final throes as a cornerback), Ras-I Dowling, Kyle Arrington, Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown, Patrick Chung (in his first stint), Leigh Bodden, Phillip Adams and James Ihedigbo.
In the first four weeks of that season went like this: Chad Henne (416 yards), Philip Rivers (378), Ryan Fitzpatrick (369 in an upset win for the Bills) and Jason Campbell (344). The saving grace for that unit was that they got a ton of turnovers.
But you could understand it with that group. That was the year when the Patriots started to play more man to man, and that wasn’t everyone’s forte (especially McCourty’s). And they were bereft of talent: Matthew Slater wound up starting a game at safety, and Julian Edelman played slot corner in the AFC Championship Game.
There is no reason, however, why we should be talking about the 2017 Patriots as being in the same area code as those ’11 Patriots.
All three safeties, McCourty, Duron Harmon and Chung have played a lot of games for the Patriots. Three of the four cornerbacks, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones, have experience and played in some big games. They’ve only added Stephon Gilmore, valued as a $13 million player in free agency, to the group.
How do you explain how this group is markedly worse than last year?
“You can’t explain it,” said Harmon, a defensive captain. “I really believe it’s just a lack of focus. We just need to be more focused and zero in on each play. We have to have the mental toughness to do our job each play.”
Unbelievable that we’re at this point, but we are.
How bad was it on Sunday, and where do they go from here? Let’s break down the biggest plays can go from there: