The Patriots Have a “Scheme” Problem, Not a Talent Issue on Defense

Lee Schechter
November 14, 2016 at 7:34 pm ET

It seems like just a few weeks ago we were all praising the depth and talent of the Patriots’ defense. Never had we ever seen a defense that legitimately could rotate in any active player at their respective position and expect results. But after Sunday night’s 31-24 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots have us questioning just about every aspect of the defense.

To start off, the Patriots still have one of the deepest defensive rosters in recent memory of the organization. Even after shipping Chandler Jones and now Jamie Collins out of town, the Patriots still have a slew of talent. Losing Jones and Collins are absolutely not the issue. They never have been the problem and never will be. Between Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Alan Branch, Patrick Chung, Rob Ninkovich, Duron Harmon and more, we should be seeing better results out of what has become an extremely frustrating defense to watch. How can the Patriots be struggling to this extent despite the stable of talent and depth at every position?

The problem in New England is two-fold and it is growing more concerning with each game.

Problem #1: Scheme

First off, the Patriots are reverting to a defensive scheme that brings back the wretched memories of the 2009 to 2013 defenses that were gashed through the air. The Seahawks ripped apart the Patriots’ consistent use of drop zones to the point of making us want to rip our hair out. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is calling the plays, but Bill Belichick is the one who is approving the scheme. While I’m not a football genius and we always have to believe in Belichick, here’s a newsflash:

Dropping back into coverage is NOT WORKING.

At the end of the first half against the Seahawks, we saw the Patriots drop eight and nine players into deep drop-zone coverages and the coverage didn’t get the job done. In fact, that entire drive and for a majority of the game, the Patriots allowed Russell Wilson to pick apart the defense. Wilson is an elite quarterback, but the Patriots made his life as a passer way too easy. How does Doug Baldwin get behind a zone coverage call that drops nine players back to the end zone?

We also saw the Patriots revert to loose drop coverages on multiple third downs and that has been the M.O. of the team all season. The problem is that M.O. is getting worse and worse. Logan Ryan is giving up way too much space to opposing wide receivers. Justin Coleman is not capable of covering anyone with speed. The safeties are being tasked with covering so much space that quarterbacks have so many holes to get their receivers open. McCourty and Harmon cannot track down every pass and make a play on every ball despite their impressive speed.

The Patriots’ secondary has had issues in recent weeks.

The voids in the defense are hard to watch as the secondary is content with giving all the space in the world to opponents. The Patriots don’t have a pass-rush that can even assist the defensive backs. Or do they? We don’t even know because the pass-rush still hasn’t been given a chance. Linebackers are struggling with coverage, too. Shea McClellin shouldn’t be tasked with covering running backs or anyone for that matter. The defense can only hold coverage for so long when the quarterback has zero pressure and is content with holding the ball for eight or more seconds before making a throw. No secondary can cover receivers as long as the Patriots defensive backs have been tasked with.

The bottom line is that the scheme isn’t working. The Patriots need to go back to some man-to-man coverage with Malcolm Butler being the lockdown corner that he has been for most of the season. It’s time to release the pass-rush. They need to stop giving opposing offenses so much space to work with. It’s time to make a change. No one needs to go, everyone needs to get on the same page and tweak the scheme to set this defense up for success rather than leaving them out to dry.

Problem #2: Few players are playing up to their potential

Starting with the contract players, Logan Ryan and Jabaal Sheard aren’t playing to their fullest abilities. They are having lousy stretches and Sheard is having a poor season even though he is playing for that next contract. Sheard appears to have fallen behind Trey Flowers, who has been one of the bright points of the defense.

Outside of Dont’a Hightower and Malcolm Butler, the Patriots entire defense hasn’t been stringing together their best performances. We’ve seen some great, substantial performances from Alan Branch, Devin McCourty and Elandon Roberts. Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Malcom Brown, Shea McClellin, every defensive back who isn’t named Malcolm Butler and Chris Long are all underperforming.

The Patriots are playing roulette with their No. 3 cornerbacks between Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones and Eric Rowe. There is a lack of consistency because no one is, dare I say, “doing their job.”

A defense needs to have chemistry and be set up to gain some confidence.

The talent is there, but the effort and performance have not. Players are going off script, missing assignments, not hitting gaps and losing focus and concentration in coverage.

When one player makes a mistake on defense, the entire defense is left in open water. Offenses are too good at finding the gaps and taking advantage of space and mistakes.

The Patriots need to clean up their act on defense if they want to bring this defense up to the caliber it is capable of playing at. Matchups against the 49ers, Jets and Rams should help build some confidence in the defense and fortunately, these matchups are coming at just the right time.