As Patriots' Defense Continues To Struggle, Just How Much Trouble Is New England In?
He hasn't won a playoff game since 2008, and currently, his team has the worst pass defense in the entire NFL.
These aren't the type of statistics usually associated with Bill Belichick's New England Patriots -- the winningest team of the century.
Forget the fact that the offense has scored just 19 points per game over its last three contests, or that total yardage is down: This is still a Tom Brady-led team. And Brady -- elbow issues or not -- is still an elite quarterback. This is still an elite offense, if not the elite offense it once was.
But the Patriots defense has become reliably awful. What was once a proud unit with quality veterans such as Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Ty Law has morphed into a slow and shoddy group that repeatedly gets burned on the perimeter, in the middle of the field and, most importantly, on the scoreboard.
The defensive blueprint for years under Belichick was the 3-4; three down linemen and four linebackers. New England has always prided itself in having linebackers who can both cover and tackle in space. During its three Super Bowl title-winning seasons, generating a pass rush was a given because Richard Seymour was a stud. He didn’t have the most gaudy of numbers, but Seymour was always a threat on the outside. The Pats were a very effective coverage sack team as well because they had Asante Samuel and Law shutting down the passing game and making offenses predictable.
But when the Patriots signed Albert Haynesworth last summer and plugged him next to run-stuffing machine Vince Wilfork, the Pats shifted to the 4-3. In theory, this seemed like a good idea. Shutting down the run would lead to obvious passing downs where the newly acquired Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis could create havoc. Theory, though, doesn’t always translate to fact. Just ask Andy Reid and the Eagles.
Ellis (zero sacks, seven tackles) hasn't done enough to warrant double teams or force quarterbacks into errant throwing situations, and while both Carter and Mark Anderson have a respectable 4.5 sacks a piece, Anderson has just 10 total tackles on the season. Wilfork has been his normal clogging self, but Haynesworth -- once again out of shape -- was completely ineffective, registering a measly three total tackles before the Pats finally cut him this week.
In reality, New England's decision to change schemes made sense, and likely a direct response to when the New York Jets' beat them in last year's AFC Divisional playoff game. The Pats made Mark Sanchez -- an average to above average NFL quarterback -- look eerily comfortable in the pocket. Rarely flushed out or forced to throw in pressure, Sanchez tossed three touchdowns to go along with a mere nine incompletions.
As we well know, the ability to rush the passer is a crucial element to any successful defense. This is especially true in the NFL, where offenses have become more reliant on the aerial attack because league rules make it increasingly advantageous for passing games. Not only was the shift to the 4-3 meant for Wilfork and Haynesworth to dominate the run, but, it was also supposed to give additional operating space for the linebacking core to make plays ... which hasn't happened at all.
To be fair, injuries have played a role. In the loss to the Giants for example, Tracy White, whose role is usually limited to special teams, was forced into the lineup because of injuries to Brandon Spikes and Gary Guyton, who both were playing hurt. White was victimized on two big catches by tight end Jake Ballard, including the key strike over the middle on third and 10, a play that ultimately set up Ballard's game-winning touchdown, also on White. Also in that game, the chronically ineffective Jerod Mayo was a default starter at middle linebacker, a crucial position on any defense, but a position made even more important in the 4-3.
But injuries play as much of a role to the NFL as cheerleaders -- they are always going to be there. In truth, this is a defense that has struggled from the outset. In Week 1 against a woeful 1-7 Miami team, the Patriots surrendered 24 points. They surrendered 344 passing yards to Jason Campbell -- yes, Jason Campbell -- two weeks later. Even worse, they failed to register a single sack against a Giants team without its starting center in David Baas and, their fifteen total for the season is one of the worst clips in the league.
With such a slew of poor play across the board, not all of the blame falls on the lack of pass rush or linebacker play either.
Through eight games, New England ranks dead last in the NFL in pass yards against. They now have their first regular season losing streak since 2009 and -- on pace to be burned for over 5,000 yards -- have a great chance to shatter Atlanta's 1995 "record" of passing yards against. In case you're wondering, that's over 300 yards of pass offense per game.
Devin McCourty is a fine young cornerback coming off a stellar rookie season, in which he made the Pro Bowl and seemed like one of the premier cover men in the AFC. This season though, he has looked pedestrian, failing to shut down No. 1 receivers and struggling with the physical play that made him so effective as a rookie. Part of Belichick's reasoning in switching defenses stemmed from great confidence in McCourty. Given McCourty's struggles and the secondary's ineptness though, it is evident that this defense simply doesn’t have the personnel to properly run the 4-3.
And Belichick knows it.
For much of 2011, this defense has been in a seesaw battle between zone and man. As a result, the middle of the field is continually wide open for slot receivers and tight ends to exploit, which was the case with Ballard on Sunday. Soft zone is an effective tool in certain situations, but Belichick is using it with such frequently that it's essentially become a default, particularly on third and long.
As is, the Patriots sit at 5-3 and in a three-way tie atop the AFC East with the Jets and Bills. In the coming weeks, they will play the winless Colts, sinking Redskins, as well as both Denver and Miami consecutively before closing the season against Buffalo in Foxboro. That's the good. But the bad?
Well, take into account that the AFC North has a shockingly good Cincinnati team at 6-3 alongside both the Ravens and Steelers (all of whom have a better record than New England). The Pats will need to beat either the Jets or the Bills -- and possibly both -- to reach the playoffs. Making things harder, the Steelers hold the vital head-to-head edge if both teams share the same record by season's end because of the Pats Week 8 loss in Pittsburgh.
The bottom line is quite simple. Whether the 4-3 is the defensive answer or not is a question that this team needs to figure out fast, because another couple of losses could make this season 2008 redux, when New England finished the season 11-5, but failed to make the playoffs because the AFC was so strong.
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