Perhaps the most persistent problem for the New England Patriots over the past few years has been the team’s inconsistent play in the secondary. The inability of the team to keep opposing team’s quarterbacks from gaining large chunks of yardage through the air has drawn the ire of fans and been one of the primary criticisms of national media. At times, it has resulted in the team’s inability to hold leads and has been the key difference between the Patriots teams of today and the championship teams of the early 2000s.
In recent years, the Pats secondary has been historically bad. So bad that it has led many commentators to wonder whether Bill Belichick’s supposed defensive genius is warranted. In 2011, the Patriots defense allowed the most first downs in the entire league. Last season saw little improvement, with the team allowing more than 4,300 passing yards, good for 29th in the league. In fact, the Patriots pass defense hasn’t ranked in the top half of the league since 2008.
Despite this recent trouble, there is cause for optimism in 2013. The arrival of cornerback Aqib Talib in a trade with Tampa Bay last year injected some much needed stability in the secondary and the unit seemed to respond favorably. It allowed defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to move Devin McCourty full-time to the safety position and Kyle Arrington to the slot. With rookie Alfonzo Dennard playing well opposite Talib, the defense was able to get off the field more on third down and mostly held opponents in check toward the end of the 2012 season. Unfortunately, this all broke down with Talib’s injury early in the AFC Championship Game which changed the trajectory of the game and allowed Joe Flacco to expose the Pats secondary.
Talib is back in 2013, on a one year deal, and Patriots fans are hoping the arrival of strong safety Adrian Wilson through free agency will remind them of the days Rodney Harrison roamed the Pats secondary (probably best to temper those expectations, though). What will ultimately determine the success of this unit in 2013, however, will be the quality of depth the Patriots can develop in the secondary, not just the success of the starters.
Building that depth has been a priority for Bill Belichick and the Patriots over the past few years, as evidenced by the high draft picks they’ve used since 2010 on positions in the defensive backfield. Those picks include 2010 first-round pick Devin McCourty and 2011 second-round pick Ras-I Dowling. While McCourty has been solid, leading the team in interceptions since he joined the team, Dowling has to be characterized as a disappointment as he’s played in only nine games in two seasons. Building depth in the secondary continued to be a priority for the Patriots in the 2013 draft as they selected both cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon in the third round, perhaps in response to the inability of Dowling to stay healthy early in his career.
The Patriots and Bill Belichick took a lot of heat for what many felt were reach picks on Duron Harmon this year and Tavon Wilson in last year’s draft. Ironically, it’s the performance of these players, along with rookie Logan Ryan, that will be most important to the success of the Patriots secondary in 2013. If recent history is any indication, it’s not a matter of if but when the Patriots will face injuries in the defensive backfield. If the Patriots are to truly change their reputation as a pass-poor defense, it will be because of the ability of these young role players to effectively contribute.
Of all these players, rookie cornerback Logan Ryan may offer the most potential. In his time at Rutgers, Ryan was known as a smart player able to cover his position well but also with the closing speed and tackling skills to be a contributor in stopping the run. These attributes showed up in the number of tackles he amassed throughout his college career (94 last season). The knock on Ryan is his size (listed at 5-11, 195 lbs by the Patriots) which some analysts believe may lead to an inability to make plays against bigger NFL receivers.
Another year in the Patriots system may help second-year safety Tavon Wilson, but he hasn’t done much to separate himself in camp thus far. Duron Harmon is more of an unknown (he wasn’t even invited to the combine) and despite some positive reports out of camp, we won’t really know what he can contribute until the regular season gets underway. Most of the buzz around Harmon thus far relates to his ability to defend the deep ball (which Tavon Wilson has at times struggled to do). That may explain why Bill Belichick and the Patriots were willing to use a third round draft pick on a player most analysts had never heard of. If Harmon can help the Patriots limit the big play on pure passing downs, that pick will have been well worth it, as that’s been an area of real need for the Patriots in recent seasons.
Like a lot of positional battles in Patriots training camp, the competition between these young role players is an important one to watch throughout the rest of the preseason and in the early stages of the regular season. If the injury bug hits this Patriots secondary, which, unfortunately, seems more likely than not given recent history, these young players will need to step up if this team is going to compete at the level they hope to in the AFC this year.