New England Patriots: Looking Ahead to 2013 – Part Four-Pass Defense:
By Hal Bent
Jan 13, 2013; Foxboro, MA, USA; Houston Texans tight end Owen Daniels (81) catches a pass over New England Patriots strong safety Tavon Wilson (27) and cornerback Aqib Talib (31) during the first half of the AFC divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots defense gave up 373 yards per game last season good for 25th in the league. The Patriots finished 9th in points allowed with 20.7 points per game, as their defense feasted on turnovers and continued their frustrating “bend but do not break” style of defense. However, their pass defense against let them down by allowing 271 yards per game, 4th worse in the league. Rush defense was 9th in the league as well giving up almost 102 yards per game. In addition, the Patriots had 44 takeaways and only 16 giveaways for a league-leading plus 25. The team allowed teams to convert 40% of their 3rd downs putting them at 22nd in the NFL. The AFC Championship Game was a microcosm of the defense this past season as it played well at times, but gave up too many big plays and could not win when the team did not create turnovers or score a ton of points on offense.
The Patriots passing defense (primarily while in the sub package, or the nickel or dime defense depending upon the number of players in the secondary) has been the team’s achilles heel since they let cornerback Asante Samuel leave in free agency and the retirement of safety Rodney Harrison. The only glimmer of hope was when the team traded for troubled cornerback Aqib Talib, who improved the secondary immediately. The Patriots had 7th round pick cornerback Alfonzo Dennard step in opposite Talib and with two bump-and-run man-to-man cornerbacks and Devin McCourty moved to safety and disappointment Patrick Chung moved to the bench, the secondary eliminated the back-breaking long touchdowns and allowed the defense to mix in more creative blitz packages.
All attempts the Patriots had made over the past few years to shore up the secondary via the draft have been disastrous, as numerous picks were made in the first 4 rounds to address the back end of the defense. The Patriots drafted safety Brandon Meriweather in the 1st round in 2007 to be their hard-hitting safety from the University of Miami, but he was far from another Ed Reed on or off the field. In 2008 they picked cornerbacks of the future Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite in the 2nd and 4th round respectively. Neither worked out. In 2009 cornerback Darius Butler was picked in the 2nd round along with safety Patrick Chung and after some brief glimpses of hope, both flamed out in short order. In 2010 it was cornerback Devin McCourty who has since been moved to safety after flaming out at cornerback after a good first season. In 2011 the Patriots held the desirable first pick of the 2nd round and drafted cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who has spent two seasons on injured reserve. Finally in 2012 the Patriots drafted safety Tavon Wilson in the second round, shocking the draft experts who had him pegged as late round pick. Wilson played most of 2012 on special teams and was unable to earn regular playing time at safety.
Dec 10, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots safety Steve Gregory (28) tackles Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson (80) after an 33 yard catch during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Michael Ivins-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots had little luck in free agency either, as safety Steve Gregory gave up too many big plays to be considered a game changer. Cornerback Kyle Arrington, who was signed off the junk heap in 2009, was adequate inside as the nickel cornerback, but struggled mightily when pressed into service on the outside. Previously the Patriots had brought in scrap heap secondary players like cornerback Antwaun Molden, safety James Ihedigbo, cornerback Leigh Bodden, safety Josh Barrett, cornerback Sterling Moore, safety Jarrad Page, safety Sergio Brown, safety Brandon McGowan, safety James Sanders, and cornerback Lewis Sanders. Suffice to say, there are no pro bowlers in that group.
The lack of talent in the pass defense has been further emphasized by the lack of consistent pass rush. The Patriots have moved to more of a sub package these past years, having extra defensive backs on the field more than 50% of the time the past two seasons, according to tracking done by ESPN Boston. Former New Orleans Saints long snapper Rob Ninkovich led all defensive ends with 8 sacks last season and he played 83% of the snaps (per tracking done by ESPN Boston, again). Impressive rookie Chandler Jones and resurgent pass rusher Jermaine Cunningham gave a glimmer of hope early in the season but Jones was injured on November 18 against the Colts and did not make an impact the rest of the season. Cunningham was doing well before he was suspended 4 games by the NFL for PEDs. By the end of the season, the Patriots best pass rusher was undrafted rookie Justin Francis, who was averaging 25 snaps a game during the last 6 games of the regular season. The Patriots had difficulty replacing the pass rush of ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson who combined for 20 sacks in 2011 and neither re-signed in New England. The inside of the defensive line consisted of tackles Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick. Wilfork has some pass rush skills, but primarily is a run-stuffer. Love and Deaderick contribute little inside pass rush, as most inside pressure came from end Jermaine Cunningham lining up inside or a blitzing linebacker.
Dec 16, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (37) is helped off the field as they take on the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. The San Francisco 49ers defeated the New England Patriots 41-34. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots now have the dilemma of their stable of cornerbacks having murky futures. Aqib Talib is an unrestricted free agent, Alfonzo Dennard has been in the court system all off-season and could face jail time and/or a league suspension, and nickel/slot cornerback Kyle Arrington is a free agent and likely to be looking for a starting job with starter money. With McCourty likely to stay at safety, the Patriots cannot go into 2013 without re-signing Talib or another starting quality cornerback (who are few and far between) and replacing Arrington. They should be looking to take another cornerback in the draft, and Ras-I Dowling will be back in training camp for a while before he succumbs to injury yet again.
Ideally, the Patriots would bring back Talib and Dennard at starting cornerback, with Dowling as the nickel/slot corner, another quality veteran brought in for depth, and a rookie cornerback taken early in the draft. Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty should start at safety with Tavon Wilson getting snaps as well. Ideally, a quality veteran safety should be brought in to compete with Gregory. The first step to improving the pass defense and sub package is to get athletic, smart defenders who can play in coverage and compete for the ball in the air. Talib and Dennard are a good start, but the Patriots desperately need to shore up the secondary and pass rush in free agency and the draft to improve and compete for the Super Bowl championship.