Thursday, August 25, 2011

Secondary Key To Patriots 2011 Defense

Despite all the high-profile moves the Patriots have made on the defensive line, improvement in the secondary remains key to their more aggressive 4-3 defense. Head coach Bill Belichick traditionally does not blitz when he doesn’t trust the secondary. And when he doesn’t blitz, the lack of pressure usually leads to no playoffs or an early playoff exit.

By now we’ve all heard the big new names on the defensive line: Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, and the apparently unstoppable Andre Carter. And with more talent on the line than at linebacker, the Patriots will play more 4-3 than 3-4. But before Belichick will throw extra players at the passer, he will have to trust his secondary; and that is not a guarantee.

Devin McCourty returns after a sensational rookie campaign that saw him named a cornerback on the Pro Bowl roster. However, as noted in a previous column, second-year players often struggle in New England. McCourty hasn’t seen much action in the preseason, but he will have to play at least 85% as well as last year if the secondary is to command the respect of the head coach.

The Patriots also return Leigh Bodden, by far the Patriots best cornerback in 2009.  Though he had only five interceptions that year, he was solid in coverage and run support, and he was expected to pair with McCourty last year. However, that plan was nixed by a shoulder injury. Bodden played reasonably well in limited action in the most recent preseason game, a win over Tampa Bay, but he needs to show more before declaring he is back to his 2009 form.

If both McCourty and Bodden are healthy, that would move often-overmatched Kyle Arrington to the nickel position, which is certainly a better fit. Arrington competes like a first-stringer, but he lacks the skills to cover the No. 1 or No. 2 NFL receivers on most teams. And given the number of spread offenses the Patriots face this year, it will help to have the experienced Arrington covering slot receivers and occasionally blitzing himself.

As for the rest, you can throw a blanket over Jonathan Wilhite and Darius Butler, though if forced to choose I would guess that Wilhite will stay and Butler might get cut. And rookie Ras-I Dowling has yet to see the field in the preseason, so there’s no way of knowing whether or not he will contribute this year.

In addition to the concerns at corner, there is also uncertainty at the safety position. Brandon Meriweather, never progressed into the play-making strong safety the Patriots envisioned when drafting him in the first round in 2007. Even last year he gave up touchdowns by taking bad angles, and he guessed wrong on run/pass too often for a fourth-year player. And with reports that undrafted Sergio Brown is getting more reps in practice, the team could be ushering Meriweather to the bench... or even the door.

Although losing Meriweather would hurt the Patriots’ depth, they are fortunate that Patrick Chung looks ready to step into the starting role. Chung is a dynamic play maker who understands the defense well enough to make secondary adjustments on the fly.  His reckless style has led to some nagging injuries; but if Chung can stay healthy, no one questions his ability -- his read-and-react skills and tackling ability are among the best on the team.

Free safety sees the return of James Sanders, a veteran with six years in the Patriots system. Sanders is a solid, if not spectacular, player who will almost never be caught out of position but will rarely make a great play in a big moment. If Chung is at the other safety spot, then Sanders is more than capable of holding down this one.

Jarrad Page and Brown would compete for a roster spot behind Sanders. Page was unimpressive in 2010, so watch out if he gets lots of playing time. The jury is still out on Brown; so his preseason performance will bear watching.

None of these questions mean the Patriots defense is in trouble, or that the new defensive linemen are irrelevant. But you won’t know for certain how the Patriots will utilize all their new linemen until the questions in the secondary are answered. In the past, Belichick has changed philosophy mid-season when injuries to the secondary necessitated it.

If you watched the preseason win over Tampa Bay, and were impressed with the attacking defense, then you’d better hope the secondary proves its worth. Because if they don’t, the 2011 defense will resemble a 4-3 version of the 2010 defense -- and that did not end well for the Patriots or their fans.

So don't wait for Asante Samuel, or Ty Law, or... gulp, Otis Smith to walk through that door. How well the young defensive backs progress is key to how often the Patriots will get after the quarterback, and that is key to much impact the new linemen will have.
Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

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