-by Dino Scapelli
Remember when the discussion regularly drifted to whether this 2017 team would go 19-0? Seems kind of silly now, doesn’t it?
Let’s be clear: 2-2 is not a disastrous record for a contending team. The Patriots were 2-2 and looking ugly to start the 2003 and 2014 seasons and won the Super Bowl each time. Heck, they were 1-3 in 2001 before winning their first championship! So let’s not lose hope that they can become a champion once again this year based on those numbers. Let’s take a rational look into the team’s first quarter performance and try to determine what their strengths and weakness are, and how they might turn weaknesses into strengths.
The offense seems like a certain strength each year behind future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, who at 40 years of age still throws the ball well and reads opposing defenses better than any other QB in the game. This year’s offseason added depth to both the wide receiver and running back positions, and the offensive line returned all five starters. All-time great tight end Rob Gronkowski returned from back surgery to what looks like full strength. But stouthearted, squirrel-quick WR Julian Edelman was lost for the season in training camp, and reliable second TE Martellus Bennett was replaced by underachieving Dwayne Allen. The output of the offense has been sufficient to win each week, scoring 129 total points and gaining a league-high 423.8 yards per game. If there is a weakness, it appears to be the highly-regarded offensive line, struggling to open holes at times in the run game and failing to protect Brady, offering the old guy up for 29 QB hits and 12 sacks.
The defense, which led the NFL in scoring last season, was a disaster in Week 1 against a moderately dangerous Kansas City Chiefs offense, failing to contain the running game and displaying serial breakdowns in pass coverage. Week 2 appeared to be improved, holding a potent New Orleans Saints offense to just 20 points, but still allowed six pass plays of 20 yards or more. Weeks 3 and 4 showed further breakdowns in linebacker and especially secondary play. As effective as the offense has been, it has been undermined by a defense which has allowed 128 total points and a by far league-worst yards per game allowed. Compared to the 2016 defense, the numbers are shocking:
- Yards per game allowed:
- 2016: 326.4
- 2017: 456.8
- Points per game allowed:
- 2016: 15.6
- 2017: 32.0
- Rushing YPG allowed:
- 2016: 88.6
- 2017: 132.8
- Passing YPG allowed:
- 2016: 237.9
- 2017: 324.0
- Passing yards per attempt allowed:
- 2016: 6.8
- 2017: 9.4
- Passes of 20+ yards allowed per game:
- 2016: 3.3
- 2017: 4.75
- Passer rating against:
- 2016: 84.4
- 2017: 116.5
What happened between last season and this to explain such a nosedive in defensive effectiveness?
Personnel losses include cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Justin Coleman; defensive ends Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard, and retired Rob Ninkovich; injured linebacker Shea McClellin; and injured defensive tackle Vincent Valentine. Ryan was a four-year veteran of the Patriots defense and had become an effective slot cornerback. Long and Sheard were veteran players who were effective in pass pressure and edge setting against the run, as was Ninkovich. McClellin showed positional versatility, if not athletic dominance. Valentine was an effective inside pass rusher and disruptive force.
In the middle of the front seven, DT Alan Branch has been unable to repeat his dominance in run stopping, and newcomers Lawrence Guy and undrafted rookie Adam Butler have yet to make much of an impact. Malcom Brown is an OK player against the run, but offers little disruption at the line of scrimmage.
Intended replacements at DE included underwhelming Kony Ealy, who never looked like a solution and failed to make the team; rookie Derek Rivers, now on injured reserve; and roster keepers rookie Deatrich Wise Jr. and last-minute desperation trade target Cassius Marsh. The veteran of the group is third-year player Trey Flowers, who emerged late in the 2016 season as a big-play maker if not a steady edge setter. Defensive captain and normally middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower has been used at DE when healthy, to little effect. Wise has shown flashes of pass rushing skill, but has been rookie-inconsistent and somewhat weak against the run. The undersized Marsh has continuously been overpowered and pushed out of plays. Flowers is more consistent, but not the run defender that Ninkovich and Sheard were.
At LB, the vacancy left by the athletic, albeit undisciplined at times Jamie Collins has never been ameliorated. Replacements like Jonathan Freeny, Barkevious Mingo, Kyle Van Noy, McClellin, the small and sluggish Elandon Roberts, and doddering David Harris have never made the kind of plays that Collins made look easy. The entire LB corps looks slow and often confused by the opposing offensive formations and movement. The position change of captain Hightower has only made things look worse. This was all apparent last year, and the position was from this pair of eyes a primary need in the offseason. However, Bill Belichick apparently didn’t see LB as a major need, signing only the decrepit Harris, undrafted free agent rookies Harvey Langi and Brooks Ellis, and Colts cast-off Trevor Bates (a member of last year’s PS). Ellis and Bates failed to make the team, and there are currently no linebackers on the practice squad.
The secondary was supposed to be the strength of the defense, perhaps even good enough to make up for the obvious shortcomings at DE and LB, but the losses of system-savvy Ryan and the addition of inconsistent CB Stephon Gilmore seem to have thrown a monkey wrench into what was a functioning unit. Somehow, the leadership of Pro Bowl free safety Devin McCourty has not been enough to rein in the handsy and opportunistic Gilmore, who is best-suited to covering one man one-on-one than to making the reads that Patriots DBs normally have to be able to make. CB Eric Rowe is gaining knowledge, but is not yet the automatic instinctive player he has to be; his strength, too, is one-on-one coverage. The undersized but determined CB Malcolm Butler has not been the player we saw come into his own in Super Bowl XLIX and continued to play above his weight in 2015 and 2016. Whether it is the emotional effect of being second salary banana to Gilmore or being utilized in the slot at times, where he is clearly not comfortable, he has been a disappointment thus far in 2017. It is hard to pin down reasons for the decline in communication in the secondary, Gilmore’s system unfamiliarity aside, but like the LBs, this group has looked lost many times in the first four games in spite of their obvious physical talent.
Through the first four weeks of the 2017 season, this has been the worst defense in the entire NFL, anathema to a Bill Belichick- and Matt Patricia-coached team. Some of these deficiencies may be improved by the possible return of Valentine and McClellin from IR, and the communication in the secondary will surely improve over time. But the question is whether this defense is going to be good enough in November and December to get the Patriots to the playoffs again, and whether it will be good enough in January to get them to the championship game most thought they would be in.
What has to happen to make this defense worthy of the Belichick label begins with the DTs simply playing better, Stephon Gilmore learning a defense more complex than any other he has played, and Malcolm Butler becoming competent covering receivers between the hashmarks. The talent at these positions is there.
But even then, the lack of quality and depth at DE is something that will continue to hinder the effectiveness of the defense, and the serious inadequacy of the linebacker corps must be addressed at the very least by returning Dont’a Hightower to his normal MLB position. From this chair, it looks imperative that there be some veteran additions to the DEs and LBs via trade if we are to enjoy another championship in New England.