Sunday, September 11, 2011

Patriots 2011 Defense: Value Add

The defensive side of the ball will see most of the changes for the 2011 Patriots. They brought in significant talent to bolster the defensive line and will get a key veteran back in the secondary. But note: for all the hand-wringing about this side of the ball, the Patriots ranked eighth in the league in points allowed last year.

Here is what to expect from the defense this season.

Significant Arrivals: defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, defensive end Andre Carter, defensive end Shaun Ellis, defensive end Mark Anderson.

Significant Departures: linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, defensive end Ty Warren, defensive end Gerard Warren, safety Brandon Meriweather, safety James Sanders, corner Jonathan Wilhite, corner Darius Butler.

1. Talent Show

The improved talent on the defensive line is unmistakable. In the preseason, Carter got around the corner and disrupted the pocket play-after-play. Haynesworth showed up-and-down play in his short stint, but his attitude seems right and he is as destructive force as there is in the league when he is motivated. And Ellis and Anderson were okay in limited reps, though Ellis battled nagging injuries.

Add the new guys to Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork, returning team stalwart Mike Wright, and improving young players Myron Pryor and Kyle Love, and this is clearly the strength of the defense. And if the preseason showed anything it is the Patriots will use their front four to collapse the pocket from the inside instead of depending on linebackers to do it from the outside.

Also, with the new talent up front, linebackers Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, and surprising Dane Fletcher caused real confusion when they mixed into the blitz packages.

2.  Secondary: Rebirth or Implosion?

Corner Leigh Bodden returns to a secondary with second-year sensation Devin McCourty at the other corner, last year's other starting corner Kyle Arrington at nickel back, and playmaker Patrick Chung at safety. If McCourty remains consistent and Bodden recaptures his 2009 magic, it sounds like a tough year for opposing quarterbacks. However, there are questions most everywhere you look.

Depth could be a problem. The Patriots cut longtime solid safety Sanders, inconsistent but talented third-year safety Meriweather, and last year's third safety Jarred Page, leaving them with no proven players to pair with Chung. Frankly, I expected them to pick up a free agent safety once they cut both starters from last year, but no such player was signed.

Additionally, they let go of under-performing former starting corner Butler, and nickel/dime back Wilhite, which makes the secondary look mighty thin. Rookie draftee Ras-I Dowling might help at corner or safety, but we saw little of him in the preseason so there's no way to know what he brings. Years ago, the team went with rookie corner Eugene Wilson at safety and won two consecutive Super Bowls, so they obviously know what they are doing.

Maybe they are counting on the rebuilt defensive line and blitzes to make the secondary's job easy. But given how many of their chips they put into the pot this season, they might have been better off getting either Ellis or Haynesworth, and pairing that with a better safety. We won't know for sure how things shake out Monday night, but given the commitment they made to winning this year it better work.

3. Philosophical Debate

Head coach Bill Belichick gets testy when people wonder whether the Patriots will play more 4-3 or 3-4 this year. The question has relevancy to how the team will do, but there's no sense asking Belichick about it. It's clear -- with a thin linebacking corps and abundant talent on the defensive line, it will be "4-3 or bust!"

The real change isn't player alignment, it's in the new attacking style of defense, which hasn't been seen around here since mid-2007. With pass-rushing specialists and new blitzes in place, they are attacking the line of scrimmage rather than trying to control it. But the key to disrupting the offense still begins and ends with that undermanned secondary.

Over the years, Belichick hesitated to blitz when he doesn't trust his secondary to cover well. He hates giving up big plays, preferring to make the other team earn every yard the hard way. The Patriots start the season with enough talent at their starting corner positions, but perhaps not enough depth there or enough talent/experience at safety.

If the secondary comes through when the Patriots blitz, you will see it all year. If not, no question they will back off the attacking style until they get the secondary right. Like Mike Tyson said: "Everybody has a plan until they get hit." If other teams hit the Patriots with big plays, the attacking philosophy might be the first casualty of the season.

4. Linebackers An Endangered Species?

It was one thing to let got of under-performing safeties and eschew signing any free agent help in the secondary. But the Patriots completely ignored their need at linebacker.

At the moment, it's Jerod Mayo and a bunch of young, unproven, sometimes scary-to-watch players. Gary Guyton is better covering the pass or rushing the quarterback, but lacks the size to hold up against the run. Brandon Spikes barely saw the field in the preseason. Jermaine Cunningham looks just as lost as ever. And newcomer A.J. Edds hasn't been with the team long enough to do much of anything (he was signed last week).

It isn't all bad; second-year inside linebacker Dane Fletcher showed good read-and-react ability in the preseason. He rarely got caught out of position and made several tackles for a loss, blowing up one running play before it ever got started. And even though Rob Ninkovich is listed as a defensive end now, he is more of a linebacker, and was solid (if not spectacular) last year.

However, much like the situation in the secondary, the team probably would have been better off getting at least one dependable linebacker to compliment all the brought in for the defensive line. The talent is not spread evenly on this defense. That might not matter, especially if the line can dominate. But it's no small risk to leave yourself short-handed at both linebacker and safety, especially going into an season with such high expectations.

5. Summary

To cover for potential problems in the secondary, look for either Dowling or Arrington to get time at safety this season. Both have the size and competitive spirit to stay with larger tight ends and cover the third-best receiver in a pinch. As for linebacker -- with huge and talented linemen taking up blockers, they should be fine against the run. The talent drop-off from Mayo to the rest of the linebackers will show itself against the pass, if the D-line can't get to the quarterback.

But I expect all of this to be moot. The defensive line is talented and motivated enough to cover up a lot of other problems. The Patriots kept 11 linemen, so they can rotate them to keep them fresh and healthy throughout the season. And if that plan works out, the Patriots defense should join a dominant offense in the ranks of the league's best.

Statistical Oddity of the Day: For all the bluster about the vaunted Jets defense of "genius" Rex Ryan, the Patriots allowed just 9 more points than the Jets (313 to 304).

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

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