New England Patriots Midseason Forum, Part 2: Defensive Philosophy


So, Bill Belichick isn’t a defensive genius any longer.

It must be true, I heard it on television and I read it several times on blogs, and even a national sports site.  So all of these experts have now denounced Bill as a wannabe who should be put to sleep.

Football experts and analysts are a dime a dozen – make that a baker’s dozen.  Narcissists all, they routinely flip-flop in order to ensure that the American public agrees with them and considers them superior.  Belichick doesn’t care what they think, obviously doesn’t agree with them and considers them the scourge of the earth.

So when the national media starts jumping off the Patriots’ bandwagon, Belichick just says, “Aw Shucks”, then stretches out for a nap with his new found leg room.  Sets up a grill.  Hires some roadies to set up a stage with a Pulpit…Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora providing an appropriate background beat while Bill raises a Hell and brimstone sermon …

“Oh ye of little faith”…

Go ahead, jump off our bandwagon, he says.  But keep in mind that when we catch our momentum, the freaking thing will be moving too fast for you to jump back on – and we don’t need you anyway – never did…

When Belichick shocked the experts by selecting Illinois defensive back Tavon Wilson in the second round of this year’s draft, the media accused him of having a longer reach than Mr. Fantastic, and Mel Kiper Jr. was rendered speechless on national TV, scrambling through his notes for something  – anything – tangible to say about Wilson.

Sep 16, 2012; Foxboro, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots free safety Tavon Wilson (27) recovers a fumble by Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb (4) during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE

Which was worth at least a second round draft pick, perhaps a 1st rounder.  Even if Wilson turns out to be nothing more than a career backup, just seeing Kiper stammering and spitting out sentence fragments in front of millions of TV viewers was worth wasting the pick on.

But Wilson is much more than that.  He is already the defacto starting strong safety – and only two games into that stint, he’s already an improvement over the fragile Patrick Chung.  In Chung’s defense, however, he is more of a free safety – as is Steve Gregory, and Devin McCourty.  In fact, Wilson may be the only defensive back on the team with the size, durability and nasty streak to play strong safety…but that is a discussion for another time.

Right now we’re searching for the philosophy of the defense, and it’s not as easy as I thought it was going to be to identify.

I was prepared to announce the end to the evil and wrong “Bend but don’t break” philosophy of the recent past, ushering in the “Street Thug” Defense – smack them in the mouth until they beg for mercy, then put your foot on their throat – sorry, all out of mercy.

I would love to say that, but I can’t.  Not yet.  I can’t even state with any confidence that this defense is radically better than last year’s magic act.  But unlike last season when we had no idea where the improvement was going to come from, if anywhere, the 2012 season offers potential that you can actually see.

The pieces are better, with players like Jones and Hightower and Wilson added to names like Mayo, Spikes and Wilfork – but right now, the results are the same…and when that happens, there’s only one direction in which most folks will look – which is why Belichick is getting beat up in the media.

While last year’s coaching job was perhaps the best smoke and mirror job in football history, it didn’t start to turn in solid results until the second half of the season – and Belichick took a beating then as well.

How did that turn out, by the way?

As we’ve often heard, Belichick tends to build his team throughout the season, preparing his best for when the weather turns cold – and since we saw the defense really come together in the playoffs last winter, doesn’t it go to figure that the same thing could be happening now?

Regardless, the front seven is solid, sometimes even spectacular.  They are stout against the run, one of the top run defenses in the NFL.  Which is awesome.  You need to stop the run to make teams one-dimensional, so you can pin your ears back and go after the passer.  But if you can’t get to the passer, what’s the point?  All you’ve done is stop the run while the quarterback is laying 350 yards on your secondary.

At some point, the discussion becomes more of a philosophical theory equivalent to the chicken and the egg.  Are the corners getting burned because the pass rush can’t get to the quarterback, or are the corners not covering well enough to give the pass rush time to get there?  It’s really a combination of many things, but the biggest factor is that this is one of the youngest defenses in the NFL.

Outside of Wilfork, Mayo and Ninkovich, most of the players are still playing on their rookie contracts.  Three of the starters are rookies, one on each level.

The secondary is in flux, with no discernible depth chart.  Injuries have ravaged the safeties and it seems to make the corners nervous that their over the top help has consisted of a couple of rookies at times, making them wary about turning to look for the ball in fear that the receiver will get away from them – at least that’s what we’ve been told.

But if that sounds like a cheap cop-out, it probably is.  If you even make an attempt to look back for the ball while you’re mugging the receiver, your chances of not being called for pass interference increase by a factor of fifty.  If you try to reroute the receiver at the line of scrimmage, the chances that you dictate how the play turns out increases as well.

So both the scheme and the execution need to improve.  In recent weeks, some new blood has been infused into the secondary, and some positions are being shuffled.  The Cover 2 zone hasn’t worked – one only has to look back at the Jets’ and Seahawks game to realize this – and the corners have shown much better in man coverage.

The Wilson / McCourty combination at the safeties merits a closer look, and 7th round cop puncher Alfonzo Dennard may already be the best cornerback on the team.  If he can lock down and solidify one of the corners, and if Wilson and McCourty perform as ably as their potential suggests, this has the makings of a championship defense.

I want to say that again.  This has the makings of a championship defense.  It really does.  Perhaps fans and the media would be best advised to be patient and let Belichick work his genius.

And he’s going to work it out, whether we’re on his bandwagon or not.