Unit hasn’t played to their potential…yet
The Patriots get their bye week at a perfect time, right smack dab in the middle of the season before they begin a very important stretch of games that will mark the outcome of the 2016 regular season.
The Jamie Collins trade furor has subsided a little bit and again good timing by Bill Belichick. The players get over their shock, get a couple of practices in, get some time off to lay in the sun somewhere and come back refreshed, and hopefully focused.
We’re breaking down our mid-term grade for the defense’s positions today after the offense’s yesterday.
So… step back off the rail on the Tobin Bridge, buckle up and let’s look at the first half of an eventful and at times, tumultuous first half of the season. The Patriots went 7-1 much to the chagrin of the league and the rest of the teams as they are the top team in the AFC at the midway point.
One thing to keep in mind about the Patriots defense, and something Bill Belichick preaches constantly. The most important stat per Belichick is points, specifically, points allowed by the defense. The Patriots are currently third in the NFL allowing only 16.5 points per game behind just Minnesota and Seattle.
Denver whose defense is the one that Patriots fans always use for comparison is currently fifth, allowing 17 points a game. Does that mean the Pats defense is better than Denver’s? Not at all, but at the same time it shows that there is possibly a lot more that this unit can accomplish.
Defensive Line: B
The Patriots defensive line has done a pretty good job at defending the run this year…apart from the two games against Buffalo. They’re allowing 101.2 yards per game this season. Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, with Vincent Valentine and Woodrow Hamilton have been very good at clogging up the middle. Branch is playing some of his best football in his career with the Patriots and has been a very valuable piece inside. Even pushing the pocket a bit on passing downs.
The edge players, Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard, Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich have likewise been outstanding in run support and set the edge very impressively. They stay at home, stretch the plays out and either make them on their own or allow the linebackers or secondary members to clean it up.
Where they’ve lacked thus far this season is in the pass rush department. They just aren’t winning the one-on-one matchup battles nearly consistently enough. Part of the reason is by design. Both Bill Belichick and DL coach Brendan Daly have stated that the defense has sacrificed the pass rush to help defend certain backs and tight ends as well as keep scrambling QB’s in the pocket.
Daly told NESN this week, “A lot of people want to judge it based on sack numbers, quarterback hit numbers. I think there’s a lot of other things that go into play there: keeping scrambling quarterbacks in the pocket, forcing quarterbacks that aren’t as mobile to move out of the pocket, the kind of marriage of coverage and rush. And certain times game plan-wise, we may sacrifice some pass rush to take away a back or a tight end.
“The reality is, you’re trying to affect the quarterback. However, you get that done to be more successful is what the ultimate goal is in winning the game. So, I think it’s a very difficult thing to put your finger on in terms of ‘is it successful, is it not successful?’”
While they aren’t as terrible as they’ve been made out to be, can they improve? Absolutely. This one area I would expect them to be working on much harder next week.
Jamie Collins wasn’t his dominant self the first half of the season. Other than the Houston game where he was all over the field, he played well but not well enough apparently and the coaches shipped him off to the equivalent of football Siberia…Cleveland. Now they’ll have to replace his three-down presence.
Dont’a Hightower and Elandon Roberts are physical downhill, instinctive run-stuffers. Hightower will have much more on his plate now and the defensive captain will be looked to even more to provide the leadership on the defense as well as do some more blitzing in the A-gaps. Roberts is an undersized, rookie who plays much bigger than his size, see Joe Thomas in Cleveland.
Shea McClellin was brought here in free agency but hasn’t played a ton. He also missed a few weeks with a concussion. Ninkovich can also drop back and play some linebacker as he’s done in the past.
Which brings us to our final two linebackers and now with the trade of Collins the most intriguing, Barkevious Mingo and Kyle Van Noy. Both at this stage are complete unknowns.
Mingo came over at the end of preseason and has the freakish athleticism of Collins, but lacks his size and strength. Could he become the third down ‘backer that can rush the passer? Possibly. Although he’s been playing a lot of special teams, he’s played very little on defense, a total of 27 snaps, including 10 against the Bills, his most.
Van Noy came out of the draft as a guy that could do a little bit of getting after the passer and coverage of tight ends and backs. He too will probably get some snaps to see what he can do. Can the Patriots bring out what the Lions and Browns couldn’t with these two? We’ll soon find out.
The secondary has had a decent start to the season. Malcolm Butler was hobbled by a bum ankle but has been playing better than his 2015 season and has shown he deserves a very healthy pay raise next year.
Logan Ryan has played okay, and usually gets matched up with the opponent’s speediest receiver with some safety help. But his play has been a bit inconsistent of late and facing teams with some bigger receivers, the Pats gave Eric Rowe the start the past two weeks. Rowe is the biggest of the Pats corners but struggled in Buffalo, drawing some PI flags…one in particular, was not earned.
Justin Coleman and Cyrus Jones, the Pats top draft pick, have not been good as the slot or nickel corner. Both have struggled and Jones has been a healthy scratch for the past three weeks.
Devin McCourty and Pat Chung lead a safety group that is very solid. McCourty is the QB of the secondary and has had an outstanding season. Chung has gotten some flak, undeserved in my opinion as he’s been a major plus in his second go-around with the team. Duron Harmon is an under the radar third safety. Jordan Richards and Nate Ebner haven’t gotten a ton of snaps.
Special Teams: B
After struggling to start the season, Stephen Gostkowski looked more like the guy we’ve seen for the past 10 seasons, last week in Buffalo. He was 5 for 5 on extra points and made both field goal attempts, including a 51-yarder at the end of the half. His short kickoffs have been outstanding all season.
Ryan Allen has had some ups and downs but he’s been very solid for the most part in 2016. He’s been very good at angling his punts inside the 20 to limit the returns. The Patriots coverage units have been terrific so far and the return game got a boost from Danny Amendola returning the second half kickoff last week 73 yards.
Matt Patricia hasn’t had a great season thus far. The defense is not playing as well as they were envisioned at the beginning of the year. The talk was that this was going to be a Top 10 or even a Top 5 defense. While they are third in points allowed, their overall play has only been so-so. And until recently their play in the red zone and on third down has been spotty. Patricia has his work cut out for him in the second half as the defense will be going thru some changes.
Bill Belichick did a masterful job of not only preparing the team but its two young QBs to carry on for Tom Brady in the first quarter of the season. Now he faces another difficult challenge.
By trading one of the top players on the team and easily the most athletic, he’s pushed all of his chips into the middle of the table betting that he can get the best out his remaining players on defense. And of course, lead them to another Super Bowl berth. Now we’ll all watch to see how the players will react. There are examples of them reacting well, (2003), and poorly, (2009). One thing it won’t be is boring.
We’re on to Seattle.
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