For the second week in a row the Patriots dug themselves another early hole and were unable to climb out of it and eventually fell, 26-10, to the Detroit Lions.
New England was thoroughly dominated on both sides of the ball throughout the night, especially in the first half, as they allowed Detroit to control the ball for nearly 40 minutes.
Here are some observations from the Patriots second loss of the season.
-The big news of the pregame came about 90 minutes prior to kickoff when the Patriots listed recently acquired wide receiver Josh Gordon as one of their inactives. Gordon arrived via trade on Monday but was limited throughout the week during practice with a hamstring injury. He made the trip to Detroit and took part in a lengthy workout, first catching passes from character coach/team development Jack Easterby before going through the paces with Brian Schwenke and Cole Croston, who were also inactive. Gordon remained on the field when the rest of the team arrived but never ran full speed to test the balky hamstring.
-The Patriots defense underwent significant changes in Detroit with Trey Flowers (concussion), Patrick Chung (concussion) and Eric Rowe (groin) all remained in Foxborough and were inactive. That forced rookie corners J.C. Jackson and Keion Crossen as well as defensive end Derek Rivers to make their NFL debuts for the Patriots. Jason McCourty got the start alongside Stephon Gilmore at corner with Duron Harmon joining Devin McCourty at safety. Jackson and Crossen saw action during the third defensive series as Jason McCourty was replaced. Cyrus Jones, who was re-signed off the Ravens practice squad earlier in the week, also saw action on defense, lining up at safety in dime packages. Jones also handled punt return duties, successfully calling for a fair catch on his first and only attempt of the game.
-Through three weeks of action one thing that has become painfully apparent with the Patriots is their overall lack of team speed. That has especially been true on the defensive side of the ball. Detroit consistently was able to get running back Kerryon Johnson to the edge of the defense, and it seemed every time Matthew Stafford through the ball short of the sticks his receivers were able to create space for themselves by outrunning Patriots linebackers for first downs. Stafford consistently kept the ball underneath the coverage but managed to complete 18 of 23 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown in the opening 30 minutes.
-Perhaps the most troubling aspect of that lack of speed has been the play of Dont’a Hightower. After missing all but five games last season due to a torn pectoral muscle, the linebacker’s return was heralded as a huge bonus for the defense. That has yet to transpire as Hightower has looked particular slow and has been reduced to a part-time player in the early going. Detroit’s running game is considered one of the worst in the entire league but that was not the case Sunday night. The Lions entered the game having gone 70 games without a 100-yard rusher but Johnson eclipsed the mark with 101 yards on just 16 carries for a healthy 6.3-yard average. Hightower was victimized several times by Johnson’s speed to the edge. The veteran seemed to be late and slow on a number of occasions and that has been the case for three games. De facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores discussed Hightower’s play earlier in the week and explained that his sporadic playing time has been due to game plans and situations. That has been a departure from Hightower’s near-full-time play in the past. It’s something worth monitoring in the future.
-Jacob Hollister (chest) also was declared out on Friday when he reportedly took a hard fall during practice. That left just Dwayne Allen and Rob Gronkowski at tight end for a Patriots offense that struggled in the first half. Tom Brady & Co. finished the first 30 minutes with just 3 points and were outgained 231-70. The Lions finished the first half with 17 first downs to just three for New England, and all of those numbers were even more lopsided with five minutes to go before the break. At that stage the Lions led 13-0 and the Patriots had yet to record a single first down and were outgained 196-13. It was about as thoroughly dominated as the Brady-led Patriots have ever been in a first half.
-Matt Patricia had a decision to make on the Lions first drive of the game, facing a fourth-and-inches from the Patriots 21. Golden Tate caught a pass on third-and-five but was touched down just short of the sticks. Patricia sent Matt Prater on to kick a 38-yard field goal that opened the scoring. Playing against Tom Brady and the Patriots the decision to settle for three while needing little more than a couple of inches was a strange one with all signs pointing toward a high-scoring game.
-Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels didn’t get off to a great start in Detroit. The Patriots went three-and-out on each of their first three drives, and Brady failed to target Gronkowski on any of three possessions. McDaniels also seemed to lean on the run too much, calling on rookie Sony Michel on a pair of third-and-one situations. Michel was stuffed in the backfield on both attempts, the second coming in the red zone and leading to a late field goal. McDaniels’ decision to not allow Brady the chance to move the chains seemed to put the Patriots in the early hole.
-The complexion of the game changed dramatically early in the third quarter when Detroit opened with Stafford throwing an interception to Ja’Whaun Bentley on the third play, leading to a 52-yard touchdown drive for New England. Bentley did a great job of cutting underneath tight end Luke Willson on third-and-six for the pick, and the Patriots took advantage, Brady capped the drive with an incredible throw to James White for a 10-yard touchdown to convert a third-and-eight. White was covered by Quandre Diggs but Brady’s throw was perfectly placed to the inside to get the Patriots back within 13-10.
-The defense came out of the locker room with much more intensity after the half, particularly Deatrich Wise. Wise had a lengthy celebration after contributing to a run stop just before Bentley’s interception. Then after the Patriots inched within a field goal on White’s touchdown, Wise broke through and sacked Stafford for a 7-yard loss, once again sparking a notable celebration. Wise incidentally played with his hand wrapped after dealing with a finger injury suffered in the Week 2 loss in Jacksonville.
-That momentum was short-lived as Stafford responded with an impressive 75-yard drive that featured three third-down conversions. The Lions effectively mixed the run and pass before Stafford found Marvin Jones alone in the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown. Jones beat Gilmore badly on the play, starting on the left hash and getting inside Gilmore before racing across the field. Gilmore hesitated on the play and wound up chasing almost from the start, allowing Stafford plenty of room to make the throw.
-There was an ESPN report during the day indicating that the Patriots were close to dealing Gronkowski to the Lions just before the draft in April, and the All-Pro tight end contemplated retirement. There were rumors that Belichick was looking to add some draft capital in order to package picks in an effort to move up further to select quarterback Baker Mayfield, who wound up going first overall to Cleveland. Obviously the deal was never consummated, but Gronk confirmed the report after the loss to the Lions. “Yeah, it happened,” Gronkowski said. “Brady’s my quarterback. I’m not going anywhere without Brady.”
-In addition to the thorough domination on both sides of the ball, the Patriots had some uncharacteristic sloppiness on display. At one point they were called for having 12 players on defense on a play in which all 12 were lined up and ready for the snap with no idea that the alignment was wrong. There were also more than a few occasions where Brady couldn’t get on the same page as his receivers, once getting flagged for intentional grounding on a deep ball to nobody in particular. It all added up to a decisive loss on the road in a game in which the Lions held the ball for nearly 40 minutes.
-New England lost its second straight game, marking the first two-game losing streak the team has suffered through in the month of September since 2012. It’s also only the second time the Patriots have lost two in a row in the first month, the other coming in 2001.