How to Improve the Pass Defense

John Vampatella
February 22, 2013 at 06:52pm ET

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Here are the Patriots' league ranks in pass defense the last four seasons:

Pass Yds Allowed Per Game
- 2009: 210 (#12)
- 2010: 259 (#30)
- 2011: 294 (#31)
- 2012: 271 (#29)

Pass Yds Per Attempt Allowed
- 2009: 7.0 (#19)
- 2010: 7.1 (#21)
- 2011: 8.0 (#29)
- 2012: 7.7 (#28)

Pass Comp % Allowed
- 2009: 58.6% (#11)
- 2010: 63.5% (#24)
- 2011: 62.4% (#23)
- 2012: 62.1% (#20)

Pass TD Allowed
- 2009: 25 (#20)
- 2010: 25 (#21)
- 2011: 26 (#22)
- 2012: 27 (#21)

Opp Passer Rating
- 2009: 81.7 (#13)
- 2010: 81.2 (#13)
- 2011: 86.1 (#20)
- 2012: 86.9 (#17)

QB Sacks
- 2009: 31 (#23)
- 2010: 36 (#14)
- 2011: 40 (#14)
- 2012: 37 (#15)

- 2009: 18 (#11)
- 2010: 25 (#1)
- 2011: 23 (#2)
- 2012: 20 (#5)

On the whole, the numbers are pretty gruesome. The Pats are mediocre in sacking the QB, terrible in passing yards per attempt and pass yards allowed, poor in completion percentage, opponents' passer rating, and passing TDs allowed. The only area where they excel is in interceptions. They do a really good job picking off the opposing QB.

So how do they make improve the pass defense? I would like to offer a few ideas, in no particular order.

Improve the Pass Rush
The Patriots do not generate a lot of pressure on the QB, and over the course of time that shows itself in the number of sacks they get. Sacks, of course, aren't the end-all statistic that reveals QB pressure, but over time, the more pressure you get, generally the more sacks you'll get. They are middle-of-the-pack in sacks.

An improved pass rush will improve the coverage. If a QB takes a five or seven step drop, looking for a longer-developing pattern, a good pass rush will make him throw it sooner than he wants. DBs need only cover for a few moments. But if there is no pressure, the QB can work through all his progressions, receivers have time to run longer patterns, and DBs have to cover for a longer period of time. That is a formula for a lot of quality completions, and bad news for the pass defense.

There are a few interesting players that could be available in free agency this year:

- DE Freeney, Ind. Down year in the sack department, but he was playing on a bum ankle and out of position in a 3-4 defense. As a situational pass rusher, he still has excellent athleticism and could potentially deliver double-digit sacks.

- DE Avril, Det. The Lions are looking to shed payroll in order to keep him, but I don't think they'll franchise him. The last three seasons he's had 8.5, 11.5, and 9.5 sacks. He'll be 27 for the 2013 season, just entering his prime.

- DE Umenyiora, NYG. He is 30 and coming off an injury-plagued season. But he has big-sack ability, with sack totals of 14.5, 13.0, and 11.5 at points in his career. A motivated Osi could be a real asset to any defense in need of big play dynamics.

- DE Johnson, Cin. He is a stud, both as a run-stopper and as a pass rusher. His sack totals have improved since 2010: 2.5, 6.0, 11.5. If he was on Billboard's Top 100 chart, he'd be rising with a bullet. However, Cincinnati has plenty of money, and they will almost certainly retain his services.

- DE Bennett, TB. Coming off a 9-sack season, he clearly can get to the QB. But Tampa is like Cincy, in that they have plenty of money available, and there's not a high likelihood that Bennett will be moving on.

- LB Spencer, Dal. He had 6.0 sacks in 2011, and 11.0 in 2012. Not a down lineman, he rushes from the SLB position.

- LB Barwin, Hou. He had 11.5 sacks in 2011, but just 3.0 in 2012, so at first glance, he might not seem like a guy you want to help your pass rush. But he's young, and he might not cost a lot, which is a major factor the Patriots have to consider.

The draft also has some interesting players that can put heat on the opposing QB. Here's a list of potential players the Pats could draft. Keep in mind that most of them will likely be gone by the time New England picks, but Belichick has been known to trade up to get a player he wants, so that's not out of the question. And players (like Vince Wilfork) have occasionally slipped to New England's draft slot, so you never know.

- Jarvis Jones, Georgia
- Barkevious Mingo, LSU
- Dion Jordan, Oregon
- Bjoern Werner, Florida St.
- Prince Shembo, Notre Dame
- Alex Okafor, Texas
- Ezekiel Ansah, BYU
- Trevardo Williams, UConn
- Sam Montgomery, LSU
- Quanterus Smith, WKU

Like with Chandler Jones, the Patriots might be able to snag one of these players that could help their pass rush.

Better Coverage Linebackers
The other side of the pass defense coin from QB pressure is coverage. Their current crop of linebackers are below average, as a group, in pass coverage. Spikes and Hightower are terrific run-stoppers, and there's real value in that, but they are not quick enough to cover good tight ends or running backs. This gives opposing QBs relatively easy completions in the short-range area, which helps keep drives alive or get drives off to good starts with 5-7 yard gains. Mayo is adequate in coverage, and the return of Dane Fletcher could help in this area.

Daryl Smith of Jacksonville is a good coverage linebacker and could be a nice FA target for the Patriots, should they choose to invest money shoring up this need.

Better Cornerbacks
This is going to be a major headache for the Patriots. First off, what is going to happen to Alfonzo Dennard after he was found guilty this week? It would be a big help to the Patriots if they knew now what his fate would be. He could face several years in jail, or he could walk away with probation. We have no idea what is coming his way. So they might be all set at one corner position or they might have a gaping hole there. They just don't know, but prudence dictates that they plan for the worst. With Aqib Talib as a free agent, it means their two best coverage corners are likely gone.

The uncertainty surrounding Dennard probably means that the Patriots will apply the franchise tag to Talib. It makes sense. In the AFCCG, he easily covered Anquan Boldin until he got hurt. After that, Boldin abused the smaller Patriots' DBs and had a monster game. Talib gives them speed, size, and ball-hawking ability. The question is whether he can stay on the field, and that's been a problem for him. Nonetheless, the smart play here may be to franchise him to make sure that one CB spot is in good shape.

That means that there's another CB slot that needs help. McCourty could move back there until Dennard returns. Re-signing Arrington and asking him to play the other corner position is a bad idea. There are some interesting names out there in free agency:

- Asomugha, Phi. Almost certain to be cut, he struggled in Philadelphia, but for years he was a proven stud cover corner in Oakland. He might be worth an effort at rehabilitation.

- Rodgers-Cromartie, Phi. The Patriots a few years ago lost Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel to the Eagles. Maybe it's time to return the favor and snag both Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie? Rodgers-Cromartie is a big, strong corner with good speed. He brings his own issues, of course, and isn't as good as his natural talent would suggest he could be. But he would be an upgrade over Arrington at the outside CB spot.

- Cox, Jax. He has struggled to stay on the field, but that may serve to depress his market. He had 4 interceptions and 11 passes defended in 2012 in just 12 games, so he can be productive around the ball.

In the draft, the Patriots might look at some of the following prospects:

- Milliner, Alabama
- Rhodes, Florida St
- Trufant, Washington
- Banks, Mississippi St
- Ryan, Rutgers
- Poyer, Oregon St
- Taylor, Boise St
- Slay, Mississippi St
- Alford, SE Louisiana
- Amerson, NC State

Coverage Safeties
Moving McCourty to safety was a terrific move for New England. He has corner skills and track star speed, and he's a surprisingly good hitter. As a free safety, he has the ability to cover a lot of ground. But if they choose to move him back to corner, it opens up a major hole in the safety spot. Gregory is a somewhat useful player that occasionally makes nice plays, but an upgrade could be used there.

Free agency provides many interesting options, including future hall-of-famers Charles Woodson and Ed Reed. Younger, and talented, options include Goldson (SF), Byrd (Buf), and Moore (Atl).

The draft features a number of intriguing safety prospects:

- Vaccaro, Texas
- Elam, Florida
- McDonald, USC
- Wilcox, Ga Southern
- Rambo, Georgia
- Thomas, Fresno St
- Lester, Alabama
The biggest issue with revamping the pass defense is going to be money. The Patriots have some room under the cap, but it is not a ton. The Wes Welker situation might have a direct bearing on what the Patriots will be able to do with respect to defensive improvement. A new contract for Welker could be structured in a way to free up money for 2013, but in the end, more money would be available if they simply chose to not re-sign him. It is going to be a very difficult call for Belichick to make, because losing Welker will almost certainly mean a significant reduction in offensive production for the Pats. But perhaps that money could be used to add an impact pass rusher or cover man that will end up helping the team more than losing Welker will hurt.

I would like to see the Patriots keep Welker, because I believe he is a perfect fit for this offense. But the fact of the matter is that the Patriots have had effective offenses and won Super Bowls without Welker, and now they have two of the best TEs in football in Gronkowski and Hernandez, plus a capable WR in Lloyd. While I am not advocating letting Welker go, I can see the argument that says they will still be very good on offense without him, and that the money that would be freed up would be put to better use on the defensive side of the ball.

I could see the Patriots employing a game plan like this:

  1. Sign Freeney as a situation pass-rusher.

  2. Franchise Talib.

  3. Move McCourty back to CB for the time being, until Dennard is back with the team.

  4. Sign a safety like Woodson or (preferably) Reed. I doubt they'd have the $$ to get a Goldson or Byrd. Keep Gregory along with the new safety, and when Dennard returns, Gregory becomes a reserve, and the backfield ends up being Dennard/Talib/McCourty/Reed (or equivalent). That's a pretty nice defensive backfield.

  5. Draft pass rushers, CBs, and safeties, almost exclusively, hoping to find another young stud like Chandler Jones or Dennard.

  6. Hope for continued natural improvement from Jones, Ninkovich, Francis, and Bequette in terms of pass-rushing, and Fletcher, Hightower, Mayo, McCourty, and Dennard (when he returns) in coverage.

Whatever they do, this offseason is full of interesting decisions for Belichick and the Patriots.