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Game Observations: Defense continues to struggle

For the third time in four weeks the Patriots found themselves in a dogfight at home, and for the second time could not find a way to win. The Carolina Panthers 33-30 victory at Gillette Stadium was a continuation of what has been happening throughout the first half with the defense struggling to find answers.

There are some random thoughts from the Patriots second loss of the season.

-The secondary continues to suffer through struggles with communication, tackling and virtually every other aspect of the defense. Stephon Gilmore was the individual who appeared to be most out of sorts, often seen moving in the opposite direction to the ball on some big plays for the Panthers offense. When he wasn't out of position, he was picking up costly penalties. He was flagged twice for illegal hands to the face on failed third downs by Carolina, allowing scoring drives to continue. The second was particularly harmful as it negated a Deatrich Wise sack that would have given the ball back to New England in a tie game and plenty of time left. Instead the Panthers drove for the game-winning field goal as time expired.

-Perhaps more interestingly, Gilmore took a seat on the bench to start the second half, only to return on the second play when Eric Rowe left after aggravating a groin injury. Rowe was back in the lineup after missing last week's win over Houston, but served as the third corner in the first half. When Gilmore struggled in the first, particularly when he and Devin McCourty raced to chase Christian McCaffrey and left Fozzy Whittaker all alone for an easy 28-yard touchdown on a screen pass. Like Malcolm Butler in New Orleans, Gilmore was back in the lineup full time after Rowe was injured so it's impossible to tell if it was a benching or simply a minor tweak. Either way, the secondary continues to be a mess.

-For the fourth straight week big plays were a problem, and they all came in the passing game. The Panthers offense entered the game with just three touchdowns all season but Carolina scored four TDs in a five-possession span midway through the game. It probably would have been all five had Trey Flowers not stripped Jonathan Stewart when the Panthers back was inside the 10. The chunk plays the Panthers came up with were a big part of that. Newton hit Kelvin Benjamin for gains of 43 and 39 yards, both plays coming when the Patriots appeared to suffer from a lack of communication. In addition to the Whittaker touchdown, Newton also found tight end Ed Dickson twice for gains of 25 and 24 yards, both times beating McCourty. The Panthers could have had another long gain had Newton spotted a wide open Devin Funchess in the fourth quarter. Funchess beat Butler with a double move but Newton didn't look in his direction. Until the big plays are contained the defense will have a hard time rounding into form.

-Belichick often talks about how NFL games come down to a handful of plays, and sometimes those plays don't take place in the waning moments. There was an enormous one that took place late in the first half that completely changed the momentum. The Patriots led 13-10 with just under three minutes to go when the Panthers faced a third-and-eight from their own 18, and Newton went underneath to Funchess short of the first down. Rowe came up to make the open-field tackle but Funchess was able to break free and picked up 13 yards and a first down. Had Rowe made the stop, the Panthers would have punted and the Patriots would have had more than two minutes and three timeouts to add points. So potentially New England could have gone to the locker room with a 16-10 or even a 20-10 lead, but instead Carolina got the ball moving, drove for a touchdown and the Patriots last second field goal still allowed the Panthers to take a 17-16 lead to the break. That put the Patriots in comeback mode throughout the second half when a tackle from Rowe might have made the story a bit different.

The New England Patriots take on the Carolina Panthers in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, October 1, 2017.

-Speaking of the last-second field goal, Bill Belichick has often decided to play things cautiously late in the first half in recent seasons. There have been a number of occasions when the Patriots have taken over in their own end with timeouts at their disposal and less than minute left in the half and the offense has gone conservative. That wasn't the case on Sunday when the Patriots took over at the 25 with :26 left but rolled the dice. The decision paid off when Tom Brady completed two passes for 35 yards to set up Stephen Gostkowski's career-long 58-yard field goal, which he banked in off the right upright. The result of the drive was less interesting, though no less important, than the choice itself. With the defense struggling, it would make sense if Belichick simply felt he couldn't forfeit the possession in a game in which his team trailed 17-13 at the time. Taking a knee would have allowed Carolina to open the second half with the ball and a four-point lead and given the problems on defense perhaps that's why Belichick changed his recent approach. It's something worth watching in future weeks.

-Belichick's game management was called into question with the game on the line. The Panthers successfully moved the ball into field goal range in the final minute and the Patriots had all three timeouts at their disposal. With the ball at the Patriots 34 and :41 remaining in the game, Belichick kept the timeouts in his pocket. "It looked like the way they were handling it, it was going to be a long kick," the coach said after the game. "So, we tried to force as long a kick as we could." That was a very curious explanation given his options. Graham Ganoeventually won it with a 48-yard kick, which in today's NFL is not that difficult a kick, especially in the pristine conditions in Foxborough on Sunday. Also, why not take timeouts and preserve time? That way if the "long kick" that Belichick was trying to establish was missed, the Patriots could have had some time left to win it in regulation. Instead the coach put all his eggs in the missed-kick basket and watched Gano drill it down the middle as time ran out.

-Dont'a Hightower returned to the starting lineup – sort of – against Carolina after missing the last two games with a knee injury. Hightower opened playing on the edge as a de facto fifth defensive lineman but was soon off the field on second down. He appeared to take part in true base defense and then only in obvious passing situations. In regular nickel, Hightower was on the sideline, which meant he was basically a part-time player. Late in the first half he appeared to stay on the field more regularly but the Patriots allowed a long touchdown drive nonetheless. Down the stretch Hightower was more prominent, especially late in the fourth quarter when he exploded off the edge to drop Cam Newton for a 12-yard sack. The play came with Carolina leading 30-23 and it allowed the Patriots to get the ball back and eventually tie the score. But his condition is a situation that bears watching with the Patriots facing a short week and a trip to Tampa Thursday night for a battle with the Bucs. There was some thought that perhaps the team would wait another week to bring him back, allowing more time to recover both before and after the Bucs game with 10 days between Thursday and the Week 6 trip to the Meadowlands against the Jets. But Hightower was back against the Panthers and it remains to be seen how his knee responds to the limited workload.

-Brady wasn't at his sharpest but still rallied the Patriots for a pair of touchdowns in the final 10 minutes to tie the game. He completed 32 of 45 passes for 307 yards and a pair of scores but also missed a number of open receivers with throws that were generally short. For the season he has 10 touchdowns and no picks and 1,399 yards through the air. That would put him on pace to finished with 5,596 yards, which would be a record. … Rob Gronkowski finished with four catches for 80 yards and now has 6,338 yards receiving from Brady in his career. Gronk moved past Wes Welker (6,300) for the most receiving yards from Brady. Gronk (6,413) also passed Troy Brown (6,366) for the third-most in Patriots history. … Gostkowski's 58-yard field goal is the longest in team history, passing Adam Vinatieri's57-yarder in Chicago in 2002. … James White tied his career best with 10 catches.

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