Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Patriots 2012 Off-Season: Defense

Unlike on offense, the Patriots off-season moves definitely improved their defense. Their precipitous fall in 2011 forced them to reconsider how they acquire players and prepared them for a change of scheme sure to be made in 2012. But lingering questions must be answered before passing full judgment.

Here is part two of my off-season overview -- this time the focus is on the defense.

Free-Agent Departures

Much like on offense, the Patriots lost only one significant player and one semi-significant player. However, that might not have been enough losses for a defense that ranked 20th in defensive passer rating, 28th in defensive yards per pass, and a middling 15th in points allowed.

Defensive end Mark Anderson left in free agency, compounding the hit by signing with the  division rival Buffalo Bills. Anderson was not a perfect fit in New England, but he was better than many recent free-agent signings. He started only one game in 2011, but his numbers (10 sacks, and 29 tackles from the defensive end position) are all the more impressive for a part-time player.

The only other loss of any significance is linebacker Gary Guyton, who went to another division rival, the Miami Dolphins. Guyton lacked the speed to cover tightly enough in the passing game and the size to hold up against the run long-term. He was valuable as a part-time fill-in, but when he replaced Jerod Mayo or Brandon Spikes, the drop-off was noticeable.

Free-Agent Arrivals

In free agency, Patriots made no big splashes on the defensive side of the ball. They filled in some depth and brought in players who can thrive in what should be a switch back to the 3-4 defense.

Defensive ends Jonathan Farene (6-4, 292 pounds) and Scott Trevor (6-5, 255) have the size to play outside linebacker/end in the 3-4. And defensive tackle Marcus Harrison (6-3, 316) is another space-occupying linemen to add to the Patriots stable of such players. And those moves, along with the draft (more on that later) indicate that the 2011 change to a 4-3 will be a one-year experiment and the team will switch back to the 3-4 this year.

The team also added veteran defensive backs Will Allen from Miami and Steve Gregory from San Diego. On most teams you'd say neither has a chance to start, but the Patriots defensive backfield was a shambles last year. So even a 33-year old soon-to-be-safety like Allen can earn a starting spot if Devin McCourty can't return to his 2010 Pro Bowl form.

Players Drafted

The Patriots switched up their usual "trade down" philosophy, instead trading up twice in the first round to get players they coveted. It was a stunning turn of events, catching most of the media and fans off-guard. But they had to get better players to reverse the disastrous move to a 4-3 and get back to head coach Bill Belichick's familiar 3-4.

Either of the first two picks could fill a void left six years ago when Willie McGinest went to Cleveland. Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones (6-5 , 260) and Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower (6-3, 270) both have the size and speed to bring outside pressure and hold up against the run in the "elephant" position made famous by McGinest.  (Hightower can also play inside linebacker -- important versatility with oft-injured Brandon Spikes slotted next to Jerod Mayo.) And the Patriots did not trade up to watch them sit, so expect one or both to crack the starting lineup.

The Patriots also grabbed highly touted Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette, who at 6-4, 265 is in the same mold as the first-rounders. Most observers expected Bequette to go a lot earlier in the draft. He provides even more competition for those valuable starting spots, something Belichick likes to have at all positions (except for the starting quarterback).

The rest of the draft showed the weakness of the Patriots secondary. They took Illinois free safety Tavon Wilson, Ohio State defensive back Nate Ebner, and Nebraska corner back Alfonzo Dennard. 2011 featured by far the worst Patriots defensive backfield since owner Robert Kraft bought the team -- a span of 18 years. This draft simply confirmed it; they must get better players (and coaching) in the secondary.

X-Factor Players

Three big question marks hang over the Patriots defense as the team nears training camp. If these X-factors go in their favor, the defense will be much improved. But if they go the other way, the defense will struggle again, especially late in games when teams have figured out their schemes for the week.

First and foremost, the Patriots must re-sign defensive end Andre Carter. An injury cost Carter a chance to play in the post-season last year, but his dynamic skills and non-stop motor earned him whatever the Patriots have to pay to retain his services. He played the "elephant" position better than any of the pretenders to McGinest's throne, and after five years of looking, the Patriots can't let him slip through their fingers.

Safety Patrick Chung and his injury-prone body are next on the list. Chung is similar to Bob Sanders (during his Colts seasons), an impact player who was invaluable as long as he stayed on the field. Chung doesn't have quite the impact Sanders did, but he steadies the secondary and brings a physical attitude. If he stays healthy, his presence is as important as anyone this side of Carter.

And lastly, Devin McCourty needs to return to form at corner. The team shifted him to safety at the end of 2011.  But it would be a waste of talent to have McCourty (who was a legitimate Pro-Bowl corner as a rookie in 2010) play safety instead of corner. There were indications that his problems last year stemmed from the different techniques associated with the 4-3.  If that's true, he should round back into peak form with the move to the 3-4 this year.


The defense played better as 2011 went along, but they were never anywhere near a top-ten unit. The signing of Albert Haynesworth and associated move to a 4-3 couldn't have gone worse. Haynesworth was cut before mid-season, a promising rookie corner regressed, the team gave up big plays week after week, and the ended the season with a safety tandem of McCourty and wide receiver Matthew Slater.

The switch back to the 3-4 should be a foregone conclusion. They found 3-4 personnel last year (Carter and the 2012 free agent signees), they drafted 3-4 personnel this year (just the right size to play outside, with the versatility to move inside if necessary), and their veterans played better in the 3-4 in previous years (Mayo, McCourty, and Vince Wilfork).

Grade: B+ (upgrade to A+ if they sign Carter).

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

1 comment:

  1. I'd kindof like to see the Pats go back to focusing on the defense. Historically, it seems like that's where we've been the most successful.