The 2013 Patriot defense has gone above and beyond expectations though the first five games of the season. Not only have they kept New England in all five games they have played (due to a struggling offense), but they are transitioning from perhaps the biggest injury that could have descended upon them, in a Vince Wilfork Achilles injury. This unit stepped up in week four versus Atlanta after Wilfork went down, and although they were gashed at times last week in Cincinnati, the defense did enough to win that football game.
While the Pats defense surrenders the 18th most total yards per game, they have grown stiff in the red zone, as they are second only to the Chiefs in points allowed. I personally despise how the NFL world ranks defense based on yards given up, rather than points given up. Points are what win you ball games, and if a defense is one of the stiffest units when it comes to surrendering touchdowns, then that group should be considered the top defense in the league.
After an offseason of speculating how each position group would play out for New England, we have finally been able to see some of the results of this improved group, and I think it has unfolded according to plan. The secondary has finally jelled, and when they are at their best, Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard play tough man coverage on the outside, with one of the top safeties in the league in Devin McCourty backing them up. The defensive line is obviously in a bit of a pickle with Wilfork gone, and Tommy Kelly down with a knee injury, but with a coach like Belichick, I guarantee they will improve as the season progresses (Armond Armstead should help). Chandler Jones, while inconsistent at times, has shown that he can be that explosive pass rusher that the Pats thought he would be, and of course, old reliable, Rob Ninkovich is solidly chugging along.
The one area that I am concerned with, is the coverage skills of the Patriots linebacking core. Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, and Brandon Spikes are three of the best in the game in stopping the run. However when it comes to covering tight ends and running backs over the middle, they really begin to struggle. They started off the season decently, as they only gave up a combined 63 yards on nine catches to tight ends through the first three games. But a troubling trend has shown up in their last two outings. The tight ends of the Falcons and the Bengals combined to snag 22 balls for 230 yards and two touchdowns (a large chunk of this came from Tony Gonzalez). It didn’t really matter how the Pats linebackers defended these guys, whether it was man coverage, zone coverage or even double coverage, they just got beat. Mayo and company don’t have the necessary tools to keep up with the new tight ends of this league, and it has hurt New England in the last couple of weeks.
Now, the challenge gets even tougher, as they welcome Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints to town. When Rob Gronkowski is healthy, there is no doubt that he is the best tight end in football. But Graham is a damn close second. He relies on his tremendous athletic ability to do most of his damage, which is fine with me. What he can do in terms of speed, quickness and agility at his size is amazing, he also has a basketball background, which he helps him obtain jump balls, which I am sure that Drew Brees appreciates. Graham has 37 receptions which have gone for close to 600 yards (an amazing 16 yard average) along with six touchdowns. Even the best coverage linebackers have a tough time guarding Graham, never-mind someone like Hightower or Mayo. If the Pats allow Graham to get going between the hashmarks, it could be a long day for this defense. In my opinion, the Saints offense runs through Graham, because he opens up everything else on the outside. Teams will begin to clog the middle it an attempt to slow down Graham, which helps get things going for the wide-outs. I don’t care how the Patriots do it, but they must find a way to slow down the big tight end. If I were directing the Pats (in your dreams Cyrus), I would try bracketing him with Mayo and Steve Gregory, and hope that Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard hold their own on the outside.
Like Gronkowski, Graham can take over a game with his incredible skill-set. So, the number one priority for the Patriots coaching staff, should be to figure out how to slow down the freakishly talented big man. Simply allowing Graham to abuse whatever poor soul that has been given the assignment of covering him one on one will not suffice, but I trust that the greatest defensive mind of all time (yeah, I said it) will figure out a way to corral him, and make this ball-game a close contest.