Inexperience And Chemistry Holding Back the Patriots Defense

Ian Logue
September 27, 2010 at 01:25am ET

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Listening to some of the reactions Sunday afternoon, it's kind of surprising that fans didn't seem to realize that the Patriots defense was going to have their fair share of struggles early on this season.

This shouldn't be a surprise to most people considering that coming into this year they were going to be in a situation where "on the job experience" was going to be a key factor in their development.  After watching Sunday's game it almost looks like what has been one of their main problems to this point is they're simply dealing not only with a lack of experience individually, but also with eachother.

One of the biggest problems on the defensive side of the field almost appears to be a lack of chemistry to this point between the players.  You can clearly see that there are guys who aren’t where they’re supposed to be, especially in certain passing situations.  Taking another look at the game, there were a couple of things people really need to realize:

  1. They’re young.  Starting three rookies and two second year players means that nearly half of your defense has played very little in the National Football League.  "It is what is," and unfortunately that’s going to mean mistakes are going to happen - and sometimes it's going to be a big one.  We saw that this afternoon when Devin McCourty let his man get behind him and Patrick Chung couldn’t quite get there in time to stop him from reaching the endzone.  We also saw it at the linebacker position when several of those guys got beat a few times on different passing plays.  Odds are probably pretty good we'll see other "growing pains" as the season goes on as well.

  2. They haven’t played much together.  Take a look at the starting line-up from a year ago.  Seven of those players are either on IR or no longer with the football team.  Anyone who's ever played football knows trust and faith in the guy next to them is something that doesn’t come overnight, and until they start playing better individually, it’s going to take some time before each of them can look the other in the eye and know that they’ll be where they’re supposed to be on each play.

Some have questioned what type of an effect Twitter and these other social media outlets have had with any of the younger players.  You have to wonder how happy Bill Belichick would have been if he noticed Gary Guyton's tweet Saturday night around 11:30 about the Georgia game – which means he was obviously awake when he had an important divisional game the next day.  I doubt the likes of Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, or Mike Vrabel would have been on “Tweeting” that late the day before a game.  Instead Brandon Spikes got the starting nod over him, and while Guyton ultimately outplayed him today, he’s a guy that they really need to see some consistency from.

Patriots rookie Devin McCourty has played fairly well through three games so far as a Patriot. (PHOTO:Icon/SMI)

In the secondary McCourty continues to look good, save for the touchdown he and Chung gave up.  Up to this point McCourty has been one of the best open field tacklers they’ve had on this team in years, and he’s continued to improve week after week.  So on the left side things are going fairly well, it’s the other side that continues to have a few issues.

Arrington got the starting nod Sunday over Butler, and for now you have to give him the edge after today’s performance.  Butler struggled again this afternoon, giving his guy quite a cushion yet he wasn’t able to close the way he did against the Bengals in week one.  It’s bizarre, if you look at who he was in week one compared to last week and then this afternoon’s game, he doesn’t even look like the same player.  You almost have to wonder if he’s got issues with his confidence, which in this league guys will eat you alive if you don’t believe you’re better than they are.  The problem is they only have so much time to let him improve, and if he’s getting beat more than half the time, unfortunately that’s a formula that will typically prompt a change.

At the linebacker position it’s clearly just an issue of a bunch of young guys who haven’t completely caught on to the system yet.  For the most part they’ve been where they’ve needed to be.  The problem appears to be that in coverage they’ve been either too far off their guy, or they’ve been in position and simply missed a tackle.  Fans have to admit this is one of the fastest groups they’ve had in quite a while, and the only thing that’s really going to improve their play is more time on the field together, and more experience in live game action.

Up front we've seen improvement from Mike Wright and Ron Brace, with Vince Wilfork remaining as steady as he's ever been.  They're still struggling a bit against the run, but part of their job is to try and clog the lanes and let the linebackers make the play.  Sometimes that's been happening, sometimes it hasn't.  But on passing downs we've seen some penetration and we've seen them push guys back, which has started to allow other guys to have a chance to make a play.  They flushed Ryan Fitzpatrick out of the pocket on several occasions on Sunday, but he was able to get away and gain some yards using his legs.  Unfortunately on those plays no one accounted for him, and it was a missed opportunity for someone to potentially make a sack or at least stop him from gaining any positive yards.

Overall it’s clear the plan for now is they’re in a “bend-don’t-break” defense, where they’re just trying to keep as much as they can in front of them and not let guys get behind them and hopefully hold them to field goals.  For the most part that strategy worked on Sunday.  They gave up three field goals and made a critical 3rd down play that forced a 51 yard attempt that sailed wide left.  Another touchdown came off of a fumble recovery that gave them great field position, while another was a result of a kickoff return for a score.  Take away those two mistakes and sixteen points doesn’t seem so bad.

Unfortunately the mistakes still happened, and the competition they’ll be facing for the rest of the season won’t allow for that margin of error.  Hopefully we continue to see some improvements, because the rest of the year heading into next Monday night’s game against the Dolphins isn’t looking like it’s going to get any easier.