Is the Defense Ready?
A Preview of the 2012 New England Patriots Defense
July 31, 2012
Being a fan and a sport management major has made me Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I will always love my teams- Patriots, Celtics, Red Sox and Trojans Football, and I refuse to let that go. The future sports professional in me (Journalist or Organizational? I still haven’t decided) knows that I can’t react the way I once did to the outcome of the games. This training is going OK, but let me say this- the Patriots Super Bowl loss last year hurt. It hurt a lot. I try to pretend it didn’t hurt like 07, but then I remember that last year was going to be that redemption I so desperately wanted and I get angry again. I said it in February of 2008 and 2012- the Giants are good, but the Patriots play unfocused football against them for some odd reason. Again, give the Giants all the credit in the world, but at this point in the rivalry (which it has become, like it or not) the mental edge goes to New York.
This edge is not only in the trenches (where the Pats have been abused by the NYG) but it is also in the coaching department. Coughlin has gotten the best of Belichick and the results over the last 5 games prove it. Great teams that are on the cusp of winning another championship know what it takes to fix the issues preventing that final agonizing step (see Lakers, Los Angeles) and the one team that exposes those issues the best is the New York Giants. The Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers also have traditionally given the Patriots fits, so taking a page out of their respective blueprints makes sense too.
It has taken time and been a bumpy road, but as I noted back in 2009, this team has had to rebuild an entire defense on the fly, and it appears that the ingredients that Belichick wanted in his new front 7 are in place. Don’t be fooled that the three Super Bowl wins were on the offense. This team won Super Bowls because of the front seven. When Peyton Manning couldn’t score more than 6 points in Foxboro during a playoff game, it was because of the constant pressure and contact he was receiving.
The secondary is going to look a lot better when a defensive player is not only getting pressure but getting actual contact on quarterbacks. I always hear the argument that “sacks aren’t important, it’s all about pressure”, but that isn’t really true. It is about contact. If you are hitting the QB and finishing more sacks, it limits more down field throws. This isn’t rocket science, it is just fact. Any Patriot fan knows when potential sacks aren’t completed, it allows receivers to shake free of coverage, no matter how tight it may be, and that is when bad things happen. This has killed the Patriots over the last six years (that’s right, six years. The defense was crumbling before it was disassembled and nobody should forget Manning shredding them in the 2006 AFC Title Game) but this year might be different.
Now, back to my point on sacks and contact on quarterbacks; in 2011, six of the top 10 in sacks were in the playoffs. Some will say that is just a statistical anomaly, look at pressure stats, but there is more to my theory. The New York Giants were third in sacks in 2011. Overall, their defense was ranked 27th. 27th!! Their secondary and linebackers were injured right from the start of the season and they had to make do with second, third and even some street free agents. One constant was pressure and sacks. Not chasing the qb to any avail, but actual contact and sacks that stopped the play from going forward. This caused offenses to account for what was going on up front with extra blockers and took considerable pressure off the secondary and linebackers. Clearly it worked.
Last season the Patriots were 31st in defense and ranked 14th with 40 total sacks. The Pats were also in the top four in turnovers caused on defense, so there were plays being made, especially down the stretch, that allowed that Patriots to succeed. If they can improve the pass rush totals and start hitting more quarterbacks, they are going to improve immensely and I also think that confidence will swell in the secondary. Let’s take a look at the projected starters. (Disclaimer: everyone is all about projecting the 53 man rosters and to be honest, that is insane. Guys get hurt and we haven’t even seen one round of cuts. I am going to focus on the key defensive players that will ultimately be the core of this group.)
Vince Wilfork, the big man in the middle, Mr. Consistency. Every season we get a short glimpse of Big Vin on all out pass rushes, and it is a treat. He is a beast to block, he gets great leverage and his deceiving speed kills offensive lineman. Will the Pats be as aggressive as some may think? If that is the case, and everyone is doing their job (Sean Payton stole it, why can’t I), Wilfork could become even more of a nightmare for defensive coordinators. I honestly believe that Belichick is changing this defense to a more aggressive unit, so expect Vince’s sack total to go up by at least two.
Jerod Mayo, the tackling machine, is finally going to get his wish, or so it appears. Mayo can flourish as the weak side linebacker, but the Patriots haven’t had the players to allow him to play there. Now with the improvements in the front seven personnel, Mayo can play his more natural position and be allowed to make more big plays. Seeing Mayo in the offensive backfield is going to be a common theme in 2012.
Devin McCourty, the 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year and he of the 2011 sophomore jinx, needs to recapture at least 80% of his form from 2010. McCourty was flat out awful last year. Things improved slightly at safety, but that wasn’t the plan, not in the slightest. In 2012, if McCourty doesn’t improve and recapture his form, the Patriots may have to make this position the focus going into the 2013 offseason, and free agency should be the avenue they explore.
Patrick Chung is a good player. Good. That feels better. I know he isn’t perfect, but as long as he stays healthy, he brings an attitude and his coverage should improve. I think Chung is on the verge of taking a step forward. Laugh at me in March if I’m wrong, but I believe he will glue the secondary together.
Brandon Spikes is a football player, plain and simple. He is not the fastest or strongest linebacker you will find, but instinctually, he is second to none. The Patriot defense has a different attitude when Spikes is on the field, and although he was limited by injuries and only played eight games last year, he still had 47 tackles (35 solo). Spikes is the “lead in the pencil” for this defense and his health is crucial to maintaining consistency and gelling as the season goes on.
Chandler Jones, the kid. The tall and athletically gifted defensive end out of Syracuse comes to New England with high expectations and not a lot of time to prepare. The NFL is a result based business, and when you are drafted in the first round, you are expected to play right away and contribute. Looking back at the Patriots history gives me confidence that Jones is the real deal, and from what I have been reading in the first week of camp, he is legit. He had better be, because this defense needs him to make plays. Jones and my next key player will soon be on display, so we will see what we have. It feels like Christmas.
Dont’a Hightower, the stud linebacker from Alabama, is now a New England Patriot, and I think that sentence is going to be the crucial story in the resurrection of the Patriots defense. I loved this kid in college and I am going to love him in the pros. He’s a beast, and he has a motor and a brain to back it. I used to get angry seeing the likes of Lamar Woodley’s of the world get passed by the Patriots, but bringing in Hightower shows that Belichick knows his defense needs a big, dynamic playmaker in the line backing core that teams must game plan for. I will say this right now- Hightower will be in the top 3 for Rookie of the Year.
Ras-I Dowling, do you think you can finish a season? That sounds like a wise-a*s question, but look at his track record. He clearly has the physical talent to play in the league and excel, but those guys that can play that are injury prone is a dime a dozen. Can’t make the club in the tub; time to start wearing all the issued equipment, Ras-I.
The combination of Steven Gregory and Tavon Wilson will also be crucial to improving a safety group that was downright pathetic in 2011. I have never seen a secondary THAT bad, and that is not exaggerating. If I have to watch Sergio Brown take another atrocious angle to a deep ball, I might lose my mind. Gregory and Wilson, along with Chung, need to stay healthy and solidify the safety spot. Defensive backs that will play in sub packages, guys like Kyle Arrington (who may start and MAY be their best CB) will be huge in the nickel and covering slot receivers and will also be crucial to the success of New England.
I know there will be injuries and probably two of the aforementioned players will not play up to expectation, but the moves the Patriots have made through free agency and especially the 2012 Draft (Hightower, Jones, and also Jake Bequette-DE-ARK) look very promising and may have Patriots fans remembering the days of Brian Cox laying the wood on Jerome Pathon and igniting the Patriots front seven to a championship caliber group. Speaking of 2001- here is another little factoid to prove the importance of getting contact on the QB- Otis Smith had a good season as a cover corner. Otis “There Goes My Man” Smith. Makes me think even Sergio Brown would look good if his front seven teammates were getting sacks. Nah, he’s awful, he would still find a way to interfere and draw 15.
***Prediction- Pats finish 15th in total defense with the pass defense, although better, still being a weakness of the team.
-Sacks will improve by eight overall and they will finish in the top 10 in sacks and forced turnovers.
chris_simoneau @ twitter.com