Wednesday, September 8, 2010

2010 Preview: Defense

The 2009 Patriots defense played better than most media mouths seem to think, finishing fifth in the league in points allowed (18 points a game).  Not bad for a unit with more first-year starters than veterans.  But things have changed a *lot* this off-season, and not all of it for the better.  Read on for details on those changes (click here for my preview of the offense).

Arrivals and Departures

This section is almost long enough to constitute an entry of its own.  Let's start with the defensive line.

Ty Warren was injured during camp and is out for the year, and Jarvis Green left in free agency.  To counter that the team signed Damione Lewis from Carolina and Gerard Warren from Oakland.  Not exactly what I'd call an even swap.  And you might notice two guys named Ron Brace and Myron Pryor on the field.  They aren't newcomers; both were seldom used rookies in 2009.

Ty Warren was good but not great the past few years, but he was held up well against the run and never complained about his role.  He is reportedly a good locker room presence, and will be missed for certain.  Jarvis Green's departure compounds the loss of Warren, as Green excelled as a spot starter and fill in.  Green never dominated (save for one playoff game) and his weaknesses were obvious when he had to start last year.  But he brought depth and experience, and he was valuable when someone needed a rest.

Mike Wright could actually be a decent replacement for Warren.  He played in place of Vince Wilfork last year, but his size projects better at an outside line position.  He might not shut down the run like Ty, but his speed could mean more pressure on the QB.  Gerard Warren looked decent in the pre-season, and frankly replacing Jarvis Green it isn't exactly trying to fill Hall of Fame shoes.

Linebackers shuffled around as much as the D-line.  Junior Seau retired again, the Pats cut semi-disappointment Adalius Thomas, and they cut then resigned then cut Derrick Burgess.  The team brought in Marques Murrell from the Jets, traded for Tracy White at the 11th hour, and cut Shawn Crable so they could put him on the practice squad.  And if that wasn't enough change for you, they also drafted Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham (who played defensive end in college but projects as a linebacker).

To boil it all down, your opening day starters are Tully Banta-Cain, Jerod Mayo coming back from injury, the rookie Spikes, and free agent Murrell.  Banta-Cain was last year's defensive MVP, though it's still a bit of a mixed bag with him, and Mayo was NFL defensive rookie of the year two years ago, so those guys can play.  Spikes showed flashes of talent in the pre-season, but there will undoubtedly be growing pains, and Murrell plays best in a 3-4, so he was out of sorts with the Jets switch to a 4-3.

If Mayo stays healthy, then either Spikes or Murrell has to step up their game this year for the linebackers to work well together.  The four of them can combine to make up for a problem in one spot, but they can't cover up if both Spikes and Murrell fall on their faces.  Gary Guyton is a decent backup, and the team also cut longtime backups Eric Alexander and Pierre Woods, so the coaches must have faith in the newcomers.

On the back line, Brandon McGowan and Leigh Bodden are both out for the year with injuries and Shawn Springs was cut in the off-season.  They drafted corner Devin McCourty in the first round.

Bodden was their best corner last year, so he will be sorely missed.  The starting lineup projects with McCourty (rookie) and Darius Butler (2nd year) at corner, with Brandon Meriweather (4th year) and James Sanders (6th year) at safety.  Backing them up are Jonathan Wilhite (3rd year) and Terrence Wheatley (3rd year), Pat Chung (2nd year), and Kyle Arrington (2nd year).  So as you can see, it's a youth movement like nothing we've seen from the Patriots under Bill Belichick.

McCourty played well in the pre-season, and Butler was solid last year, but their backups (Wilhite and Wheatley) haven't shown the ability to cover top flight receivers.  So health will be key at corner, where they have potential with the first team but the second team hasn't shown the ability to compete at the highest level.  James Sanders is underrated as a safety, almost as much as Brandon Meriweather is overrated.  But don't expect the problems to come at safety -- those two are solid enough to take care of business.


The real issue with this defense is depth.  On the D-line, Wilfork was injured last year, Warren is out this year, and Jarvis Green -- well, he's out there as a free agent but he is not on the Patriots (yet).  Ron Brace looked terrible last year and Myron Pryor only looked a little bit better.  Both appeared a bit improved in the pre-season, but the team has an awful lot of "ifs" on the D-line, a unit that ranked among the team's strongest and deepest just two years ago.

At linebacker, Mayo and Banta-Cain should be fine, and Spikes should excel despite some early hiccups.  But if any of these guys get injured, only Gary Guyton can step in as a decent backup.  Cunningham is a rookie project, and veteran Rob Ninkovich always looks good in the pre-season -- against the other team's second string.  Maybe the plan is to bring back Derrick Burgess to cover injuries, but with the players on the roster, this is a concern.

And in the secondary, the Patriots are counting on unproven young players and the current crop of backups haven't displayed enough talent to instill confidence.  They have some depth at safety, with Pat Chung, but if you see Jonathan Wilhite or Terrence Wheatley covering #1 receivers it will not be a good year.

Out of Their Depth

The Patriots defense is young, and that is probably a good thing.  They kept too many older players in 2007 and 2008 in an attempt to go for it all, and it did not pay off.  So at some point they had to rebuild with young players, and apparently last year and this year are that time.

But on defense the Patriots need contributions from 13 players who haven't been to their five-year college reunion yet.  Heck, some of them haven't been to their five-year *high school* reunion yet.  This list would frighten any hardcore fan, and any organization that banks on so many young players is risking a lot...

Starters: Devin McCourty, Darius Butler, Brandon Meriweather, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, and Marques Murrell.
Backups: Jonathan Wilhite, Terrence Wheatley, Pat Chung, Myron Pryor, Ron Brace, Gary Guyton, and Rob Ninkovich.

To be fair, some of the players would find a place on most any team (Mayo and Meriweather), and some showed glimpses of solid or even great play last year (Butler, Guyton, and Chung).  But it would be an understatement to call it unnerving to have this much youth on the field at once.  Not a normal situation for a division winner with aspirations to greatness. 

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

Dean Pees "retired" last year, and the Pats did not name a new defensive coordinator.  But the fact is that Bill Belichick was the de facto DC the entire time Pees was here, and that won't change no matter which assistant takes the pseudo-DC role this year.

And Belichick did pretty well last year, turning over more than half of the defensive starters and finishing fifth in the league on defense.  But he will have his hands full in 2010 -- with even more young players to integrate and much less depth at each position.

This approach has not yielded a Super Bowl yet; but few coaches in the NFL do a better job with a defense than Belichick.  However, it remains to be seen if his hands-on defensive approach will cost the offense the time and attention it needs (as it did in Super Bowl XLII).

Maybe more balance on offense (as written yesterday) will mean a more balanced head coach ;)


This is a difficult defense to figure out, given the uncertainty of the backups.  If Jarvis Green is healthy the Patriots should try to sign him to provide some D-line depth.  And the offense should go great-guns this year, which will tend to make the Pats opponents more one-dimensional, and thus easier to defend.  The Pats will likely slip from fifth in points allowed, but the question is how far they fall down the list.

By the end of the year, the young players could be coming into their own -- but with the lack of depth and number of injuries they traditionally face, this will be an area of concern all year.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

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