Patriots-Commanders takeaways: Pats can't overcome special teams, third-down woes

Patriots-Commanders takeaways: Pats can't overcome special teams, third-down woes originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The New England Patriots fell to the Washington Commanders on Sunday for the first time since 2003.

Washington jumped out to an early 10-point lead with a field goal followed by a Brian Robinson rushing touchdown. The momentum swung in the Patriots' direction when linebacker Jahlani Tavai forced Robinson to fumble in the second quarter. Three plays later, quarterback Mac Jones found tight end Hunter Henry in the end zone.

New England struck again on their next offensive drive with Rhamondre Stevenson's biggest play of the season, a 64-yard TD run that gave his team a four-point lead at the half. The Commanders regained control of the game in the third quarter with quarterback Sam Howell finding wide receiver Jahan Dotson for a 33-yard TD.

Washington entered the fourth quarter with a 20-17 lead, and that turned out to be the final score as Jones and the Patriots were unable to get anything going offensively. The Pats' loss gives them a 2-7 record heading into next Sunday's game vs. the Indianapolis Colts.

Before we turn the page to the Week 10 matchup in Germany, here are our takeaways from this defeat.

No answers on third down

The Patriots defense came through with a couple of key turnovers against Sam Howell and the Commanders, but the unit's struggles on third down were a glaring issue throughout the game.

Washington converted on six of its nine third downs in the first half. One of the worst moments of the day for the Pats D came on a Commanders third-and-23, which resulted in Howell taking it himself for a 24-yard gain.

That play didn't result in points for the Commanders -- Kyle Dugger picked Howell off in the end zone to finish the first half -- but it was one of several second chances given to Washington in the narrow defeat. Turnovers have been the primary problem for New England all season long but on Sunday, it was the defense's inability to get off the field.

The Commanders finished 9-for-17 on third downs. The Patriots were 3-for-12.

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Unflattering streak continues

Although they earned an impressive comeback win over the Buffalo Bills in Week 7, the Patriots entered Sunday's game still without a victory after trailing to start the fourth quarter since Jones' rookie season. The last time they accomplished the feat was Week 8 of the 2021 campaign vs. the Los Angeles Chargers.

Jones and Co. had a chance to end that streak against Washington. They entered the fourth quarter trailing 20-17, but they couldn't capitalize on their opportunities in the final frame. According to ESPN Stats & Info, their run of 17 consecutive losses when trailing entering the fourth quarter is the longest active streak in the league.

Special-teams blunders prove costly

This was a day to forget for Cam Achord's group.

The opening kickoff was a harbinger of things to come for the Patriots' special teams unit as the Commanders' Antonio Gibson returned Chad Ryland's kick 37 yards. Later, rookie Bryce Baringer punted one from midfield through the end zone for a touchback.

The unit's woes continued in the fourth quarter when Demario Douglas fielded a punt at the Patriots' seven-yard line and was tackled at the five. Brenden Schooler was called for a facemask on a Washington punt with 7:10 left in the game, and then holding on another punt with 2:16 to go -- four plays after Mack Wilson was flagged for an offside penalty on a Commanders punt that gave Washington a first down.

It was an all-around sloppy special teams performance by New England. That, combined with the third-down woes, was the difference.

Tough day for Tyquan Thornton

Thornton entered Sunday's game with extra motivation after being a healthy scratch for last week's game vs. the Miami Dolphins. But with the Patriots short-handed at wide receiver, he failed to step up when given a golden opportunity against Washington.

It was clear from the beginning the second-rounder out of Baylor wasn't on the same page as his quarterback. He caught only one of his four targets for seven yards. His route-running, as shown below, left plenty to be desired.

Thornton wasn't targeted at all in the second half.

His lackluster performance comes after rookie sixth-rounder Kayshon Boutte was a surprise healthy scratch. Head coach Bill Belichick had stated that Boutte had his best week of practice, but the LSU product still couldn't get on the field despite injuries to Kendrick Bourne and DeVante Parker.

After watching Thornton struggle again on Sunday, Belichick may have to reconsider his wide receiver depth chart for the team's Week 10 game against Indianapolis.