They were supposed to be better. Much better. When it came to stopping the pass, the New England Patriots were supposed to have figured it out, or at least uncovered an answer or two.
Dead wrong. After another red "F" on a two-minute test, the Patriots secondary is as clueless as ever.
New England found itself in a tense Week 3 match-up with the Baltimore Ravens in its hands with 1:55 to go, a perfectly drawn-up do-or-die situation. The Ravens had the ball at the 21-yard line down 30-28, and if the Patriots wanted to win, they had to be tight. They had to lock down the Ravens receivers, and meet their biggest challenge of the season.
Instead, the secondary withered in quick and alarming fashion. The Patriots could not make a play, instead giving Baltimore one of its easiest drives of the season.
Joe Flacco found Jacoby Jones for 24 yards on the first play, two snaps before Flacco hit Dennis Pitta for 17. That was two plays before Kyle Arrington tripped over his own feet to deny himself a clear chance at an interception, and one play later, Devin McCourty, woefully outmatched by Jacoby Jones, grabbed the receiver on a lob pass and was flagged for pass interference.
That put the ball at the 7-yard line with more than a minute left. Ball game.
It was an incredibly disappointing result for this pass defense. The secondary, after all, was the unit that drafted safety Tavon Wilson in the second round, signed Steve Gregory in free agency and had 2011 second-round pick Ras-I Dowling coming back. It was also a group anticipating a return to form from Devin McCourty, and was aiming to begin a turnaround at a position that has been a black hole of late for New England.
Instead, this unit looked as bad as last year's, which gave up yards like a sieve. Flacco was content for much of the night to throw high lob passes to Jones or Torrey Smith, knowing his receiver would invariably jump up and catch it or get hauled down for a flag.
Either way, the Patriots corners, especially Arrington and McCourty, sure weren't making any plays last night.
The secondary's struggles added to what was already a miserable day for the pass rush. Flacco realized that he could still get the ball downfield without having to wait in the pocket, thanks to the success of his lofted passes. With less time to get to the quarterback, the Patriots often came up empty in their pursuit.
Nobody played well (Flacco completed 71.8 percent of his passes for 382 yards), but McCourty's struggles are the most concerning. The Patriots are relying on 2011 to have been a sophomore slump for the Rutgers product. There's no ready cover-up if he continues to struggle mightily in man coverage.
If last night is an indication, those issues aren't going away soon, and it may be time to accept that the heavily-flawed McCourty is the real one as well.
The Patriots weren't supposed to be amazing against the pass. Recoveries from being second-to-worst in the league take a while. But they were supposed to be better.
Three weeks in, it instead looks like more of the same.