About halfway through the third quarter, I tweeted that this is probably going to be an avoid-sports-social-media week, almost exclusively because of the piss-poor performance of the unit that is attempting to be passed off as a defense. What I should not have done, and I have to remind myself to never do? Read comments. (Or on Twitter, read replies to beat writers’ tweets. Same thing.)
These “instant takes,” or at least the ones I was able to read before I couldn’t, generally fell under the following categories:
- Stephon Gilmore is to blame
- Matt Patricia is to blame
- The loss of Logan Ryan is to blame
- Lack of communication is to blame
I’m not a fan of instant, rapid takes, but since the defense’s problems are undeniable, these claims have to be addressed. But before I do, here’s a comment I saw here from Hugo, which I noticed was an actually sane take.
Some regression from reliable players. But the numbers just don’t add up right now. 2 DTs at a time who can’t rush the passer. 1-2 LBs at a time who can’t drop into coverage. The Panthers (and everyone else) are just taking what we give them while the Pats defense scramble around to cover for each other.
Starting with the secondary, one of the most obvious units that has regressed from 2016: Despite the high-profile and high-paying signing of Gilmore, the defense has allowed countless big plays, even to offenses that have struggled to play well this season. (I’m sure the number of big plays is a finite number, but it doesn’t feel that way.) Before the season, Gilmore was expected to replace Ryan in coverage of bigger receivers, but as the #1 cornerback instead of the #2, while Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones were projected to alternate as the third corner depending on matchups, both improving after a full summer in the system. Similarly, the re-signing of safety Duron Harmon was expected to maintain the stability at safety behind Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung.
However, that has not happened. (A significant understatement, I know.) Gilmore has been particularly penalty-prone, with two hands-to-the-face flags wiping out third-down stops against Carolina, but no one in the secondary has been regularly able to shut down opposing pass-catchers. (To be fair, Butler’s play has improved the past two weeks.) Communication has clearly been an issue, with players drawn off coverage by motions and formation adjustments. How much of that is player regression versus poor play-calling or coaching I am not sure, but no one is playing up to their expectations or, in Gilmore and McCourty’s case, their pay.
Moving down to the front seven, the linebacker group has been poor as well. Dont’a Hightower (who has already missed time with injuries) has been used on the defensive line, but no one has been able to take charge in his stead. Despite Kyle Van Noy’s contract extension, he has yet to show mastery at either pass rushing or coverage, being capable of both but not outstanding at either. Elandon Roberts is still good against the run but is a liability in pass coverage. Marquis Flowers is a pure special teamer, David Harris is too slow to see the field, and Harvey Langi is also being used mostly on the edge instead of off.
The linebacker group is the one where I’m most certain personnel is the main part of the problem. Van Noy and Roberts are good reserves, but neither should be taking on as major a role as they are. I don’t see Harris having a role on this team for much longer, as he cannot find his way to snaps. (Maybe Akeem Ayers is brought back? Just a though.) I’d expect someone to be acquired, and soon. I’d also like to see Hightower return to linebacker rather than playing on the edge, as I think the Patriots have enough edge personnel right now to be fine without him there.
Regarding the defensive line, I see the main problem as being unable to generate any interior push. Adam Butler and Lawrence Guy were the team’s best at that during the preseason, but neither has yet been able to regularly get after the quarterback and collapse the pocket. Alan Branch received a brief benching, and Malcom Brown is still steady but a run-stopper. Last year, New England used Trey Flowers as an interior rusher to great success; this year, with Flowers as the top defensive end, no one is taking his role on the inside.
This may be an area where coaching is an issue. With Cassius Marsh and Deatrich Wise Jr. coming into form as DEs, a return to the NASCAR-package mimic may help. Of course, the Patriots still need someone to generate push on rushing downs, but I think Guy (first-year Patriot) and Butler (UDFA) will get there.
Of course, there are other reasons for the problems on defense: the stripping of two draft picks the last couple years, changes among positional coaching personnel, and countless others I’m sure have been proposed by Hot Takers.
But after Thursday night’s game against Tampa Bay, the Patriots have a 10-day week. That will be a brutal week. For that matter, I’m sure Bill Belichick will be cramming a 10-day “brutal week” into preparation for the Buccaneers. And that he won’t let up after that.