Thursday, September 6, 2012

Patriots 2012 Season Preview: Defene

Patriots fan in July 2012: "They just didn't do enough to improve the secondary, and they should have brought back Mark Anderson and Andre Carter."

Patriots fan in September 2012: "Wow, this kid Chandler Jones can play, and the secondary looks a lot better."

(The truth will be somewhere in between, but leaning toward the September view.)

Welcome come back to the 2012 Patriots preview already in progress.  Today's topic is the defense, which is the area where the team could make the most improvement.  And they did get better, but the questions are, did they improve enough, and did they improve in the right sections of the defense.  The answers are on your screen, just a few paragraphs away.

Significant Arrivals: DE Chandler Jones, DE Trevor Scott, LB Dont'a Hightower, S Steve Gregory, S Tavon Wilson, DB Nate Ebner

Significant Departures: DE Mark Anderson, DE Andre Carter, LB Gary Guyton

The Front-Seven Two-Step

Anderson went to Buffalo, and Carter is either still injured or the team can't get him under contract.  No matter the case, the Patriots have to find a way to replace their combined 20 sacks last year.  And believe it or not, they might have done so.

The rookie Jones looks like the real deal.  In the preseason, he beat seasoned veterans with inside and outside moves, and sometimes with bull rushes.  He plays like a young Jevon Kearse, using long arms to keep linemen at bay and bursts of speed to whip around them or surprising strength to bowl them over.

They also added fifth year player Trevor Scott, and afterthought in the off-season signings who turned out to be a real player.  Scott got nice pressure around the edge in the preseason, and appears to have a motor to rival Andre Carter (more on that later).  With those two bookends, the defensive line is a lot more versatile and dynamic than it's been in a while.

Hightower made plays and rarely got caught out of position in the preseason.  His emergence would allow the team to move longtime ILB Jerod Mayo outside, where his run-stopping skills can help seal the edge with the new guys at DE.  However, it remains to see how he does in when the real games starts.  The Pats have two play makers on the outside, but no depth at linebacker -- at all.

That leaves high-motor but inconsistent Brandon Spikes to man the inside.  He still guesses wrong too often and runs himself out of plays.  Now that he's alone in the middle, he will have to be more disciplined.  If not, Spikes could find himself backing up free agent Mike Rivera, who's bounced around the league but actually led the Patriots in preseason tackles.

Summary: Whether it's 3-4 or 4-3, it appears the Patriots have a solid front seven.  There is depth along the line, but very little at linebacker.  But with newcomers Jones, Scott, and Hightower, they should make more plays and get after the quarterback better than they have in a few years.

Oh, and you can keep waiting for Godot -- I mean Jermaine Cunningham -- if you want, but keep your expectations low.  He always looks good for a few plays in the preseason and always disappears in the regular season.  Anything you get from him, consider it a bonus.

On Second(ary) Thought

When the Patriots got rid of Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders last year, it was a train wreck in the making.  And of course, the crash eventually happened.  Patrick Chung got injured, and by the end of the year they played cornerback Devin McCourty and wide receiver Matthew Slater at safety.  It was the worst of Patriots safety play since they Robert Kraft bought the team, almost 20 years ago.

The team signed one experienced safety (Gregory) and drafted two (Wilson and Ebner).  Normally the rookies wouldn't get much mention, but with Chung's injury history, they are bound to be playing more games than the Patriots want.  And that's the problem.

Gregory will help (and he's played well so far), but it's tough to have much faith in Wilson or Ebner.  The Patriots just haven't drafted well when it comes to the secondary.  And despite the prevailing opinion that the rules make defense almost impossible to play, many other teams have secondaries that the Patriots would likely covet.

Given their lack of success in this area, the Pats stayed with their cornerbacks from last year.  So they need Devin McCourty to return to his Pro Bowl 2010 form, need a continuation of the "over his head" play of the surprising Kyle Arrington, and need the emergence of Sterling Moore from part-timer to nickle back and spot starter.  In other words, a lot has to go right.

Fortunately, the preseason revealed a more confident McCourty, and nice play from both Arrington and Moore.  No guarantee they will lock down on receivers once the real games start.  But the signs are positive so far.

Summary: McCourty's 2011 won't be repeated, but he won't look like a Pro Bowl player again unless the safety play improves.  In the end, it might come down to Chung's health.  If he goes out, his replacement will be either an unproven rookie or a corner back (or maybe a wide receiver).  I said it last year at the time and I'll say it again, would it have hurt them so much to keep James Sanders around?

Elephant Not in the Room

Playing outside linebacker for the Patriots is not easy.  Staying disciplined to hold the end of the line and force runs inside, while needing to get pressure on the quarterback and protect against inside runs -- well, it's been too much for a long line of talented linebackers who have come through these parts since Willie McGinest left.

McGinest made the "elephant" position popular.  And ever since he signed with Cleveland, seemingly every year the Patriots signed a big-money free agent linebacker.  And year after year, they lack the versatility to hold up against the run and get pressure on the quarterback.  Andre Carter was the first to do it; the heir apparent to McGinest.  And then he got injured.

For all the improvements in the front seven, the team will miss Carter.  He had 10 sacks, 52 tackles, and 2 forced fumbles in 14 games.  He was an all-out/all-the-time player, who would rush upfield to get the quarterback and then run down a screen on the other side of the formation without missing a beat.

If he's injured and can't play, that's a shame.  But if this is a contract dispute, then shame on the parties for not coming to an agreement.  There are reports that Carter isn't fully recovered from his injury, so it could also be that he and the team are waiting until he is ready to come back.

Summary:  Carter reportedly wants to return and try again for his first championship.  If he is available for only half the year, the Patriots should still bring him back.  Rookie Chandler Jones looks good now, but if he hits the rookie wall, it would help to have a veteran to step in for him.


1.  Carter will be signed by mid-season, if he's healthy enough to play.  Even if the new guys do well, the Patriots will need the depth and the infusion of talent halfway through the year.

2.  You can't call the Patriots "loaded" on the defensive line, but they have a solid stable of inside linemen.  Of Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, only Wilfork is great.  But the rest are interchangeable and mostly immovable inside.

3.  Once again, the health of the secondary will be crucial to the Patriots season.  McCourty, Arrington, Moore, Chung, and Gregory look like they'll be fine.  It's their backups that should scare you.

4.  The Patriots need to bring in another a linebacker for depth; look for a free agent signing or a trade before they get too far into the season (probably by the end of September).

5.  If the secondary plays well, expect the Patriots to get exotic with their blitzes again.  It's been years since they did much of that, so one can expect that Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have a lot of pent-up blitzing in their arsenal.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The NFL really needs to stop ranking defenses by yards allowed.  By that measure, the 2011 Patriots and Packers had the worst defenses in football.  And all they did was go a combined 28-4.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The rookies look good, the secondary seems solid, and Jermaine Cunningham made a few plays.  Must be the preseason!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

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