Since my take on the New England Patriots offense’s grades for Week 15 ran a little bit long this week, I decided to break up the piece into two groups to analyze the defense and offense separately after the Patriots tough 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The offense fared out pretty well in my grades, but the defense is a different story. That’s what happens when you score 34 points but allow 41.
By the way, I’m really glad I don’t grade special teams, and I definitely won’t be starting that part up after their abominable performance yesterday.
New England Patriots Run Defense B+
This is the highest grade I gave any unit of the New England Patriots, and it is a grade that is well-deserved. Frank Gore is one of the best running backs in the NFL and has over 1,000 rushing yards to prove it, but he was kept in check by the Patriots run defense all day. He averaged slightly less than four yards per carry on 21 rushes for 83 yards, and the Pats also held backup LaMichael James to under four yards per carry despite allowing a 17-yard run.
Rob Ninkovich and Jerod Mayo were, as usual, standouts against the run. However, it was rookie SLB Dont’a Hightower who really caught my eye in run defense, as he was simply making plays all over the place. Hightower reeled off eight tackles with two of them coming for a loss. To me, he was the clear standout performer of this defense as a whole, with Devin McCourty and Ninko in second and third respectively. Hightower has only gotten better as the season has run its course, which is terrific news for his future as a possible star linebacker in this league. He’s already one of the standout rookies in this loaded 2012 class.
Patriots Pass Defense D-
Ugh, where do I begin? This was as atrocious of a performance on pass defense that I have seen from this team, and that’s including some dreadful games against the Buffalo Bills. I’m probably being too harsh in my criticism here, but both the pass rush and coverage were sorely lacking in this game.
Let’s start with the pass rush, which was non-existent outside of a sack from Ninkovich. Chandler Jones has not looked the same since the bye week, because he hasn’t recorded a sack since the London trip. In that span, he has had just five tackles and even his run defense has suffered since the ankle injury against the Indianapolis Colts. The combination of the injury and lack of effectiveness has me wondering if he has hit the rookie wall, and I hope Jones snaps out of it and returns to form quickly (especially as far as health goes), because the Pats need him to be as effective as possible going forward. It’s a good thing Jermaine Cunningham’s final game in his suspension is against the Jacksonville Jaguars, because the Patriots need that pass rushing influx to help out the secondary.
The main problem that I have with the secondary is the fact that they are still susceptible to the big play, with that 38-yarder to Michael Crabtree being the perfect example from yesterday’s loss. Aqib Talib looked solid in coverage, but Alfonzo Dennard had a few rookie struggles. Devin McCouty’s touchdown-saving pick was a thing of beauty, and he once again turned in the best night of any Pats DB. Heck, he’s been one of the best free safeties in the NFL this year.
But things really sour when looking at Kyle Arrington’s atrocious performance. He screwed up big time on the Dashon Goldson fake punt run, and, more importantly, on that Crabtree touchdown that won the game for San Francisco. Arrington is maddeningly inconsistent, because it looked like he was finally back on track after putting together a string of four great performances. Luckily, Arrington is a fighter who doesn’t get his confidence shelled easily (how else would he bounce back from being the worst CB in the league earlier this year to his 180 prior to the SF loss?).
What Arrington needs to do is play a little bit less risky during clutch moments in the game, and save those gamble plays for when the Pats have some room for error. Heck, cutting out those plays entirely is the best way to go. The key to being a good defensive back in this league is to be consistent, and that’s something Arrington was for a few weeks this year. I’m not going to be overly critical of him, but I will say that he played a very poor game Sunday and that can’t carry into the playoffs. Better to screw up in December than January.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.