Are the Patriots truly in trouble, or are they simply unable to beat any team whose mascot is a bird?
Following losses to the Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens and, most recently, the Seattle Seahawks, New England finds itself with a measly 3-3 record to show for six weeks of NFL play. Chosen by some experts as a preseason favorite to make the Super Bowl, the Patriots’ slow start to the season is both unexpected and intriguing.
New England has not been awful—the Patriots have been on the wrong end of some questionable officiating, two of the teams that have beaten them (Arizona and Seattle) are among this season’s biggest early surprises, especially defensively, and all three losses have come by a combined four points.
Still, this is a team that was supposed to take the entire NFL by storm, and instead they’re in a four-way tie with the Jets, Dolphins and Bills in a rather laughable AFC East. The question, then, is simple: At 3-3 six weeks into the season, should Patriots fans truly be worried?
The answer is simpler still: yes.
And here’s why.
When it comes time to win a football game, when one big stop is all that is needed to extinguish an opponent’s last hope and emerge with a hard-fought victory, the Patriots defense simply cannot be trusted.
Honestly, the problem should not even be generalized to the entire defense—it’s the secondary that just can’t seem to get the job done.
When an opposing quarterback launches a pass deep against the New England secondary, the possible outcomes are starting to feel limited to four options. For one, the receiver has totally beaten his coverage and is wide open, as Sidney Rice was to win the game for Seattle on Sunday. A second is that the defender is still there but has totally given up position to the receiver, which happened time and again against the Seahawks.
A third possibility is that the defender has no idea where the ball is and is flagged for an easy pass interference call, which happened three times for nearly 80 yards worth of penalties in Sunday’s game. Finally, and most infuriating of all, is a combination of two of those three options.
Of the three defensive pass interference calls the Patriots secondary was flagged for against Seattle, two of the passes were caught by their intended receivers anyway. The defender was so horribly out of position and unaware of the ball that, even by making illegal contact with the receiver, he could not stop the pass from being completed.
Whether it was Devin McCourty or Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung or Alfonzo Dennard, there was simply nobody in coverage for the Patriots on Sunday that could get the job done when the team needed them most. The 293 yards and three touchdowns they gave up through the air totally negated a solid effort by the run defense, contributing only to the numbers that place New England’s pass defense among the five worst in the league.
And all this came at the hands not of some seasoned, championship-caliber quarterback, but Russell Wilson—a 5’11” rookie quarterback who had thrown for 200 yards just once before in his career.
Of course, the secondary was not the only problem in Sunday’s loss to Seattle.
While 23 points is a respectable total against the Seahawks’ No. 1 ranked defense, the Patriots left a ton of points on the field—most notably in a mismanaged red-zone possession just before the half and in an early fourth quarter possession in which Tom Brady was intercepted in the end zone. A chip-shot field goal in either situation would have provided enough of a margin to win the game.
But the offense, even as good as the Patriots’ is, must be expected to falter at some point. And when it does, the defense has to step up, at least by not giving up the big plays.
So far, the secondary has shown a total inability to do so.
The New England secondary has been a question mark for years, especially in the biggest moments—no Patriots fan needs reminding of how the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowls ended. But for all his coaching wizardry, Bill Belichick still has not found the answer, and it has been his team's most glaring weakness so far in 2012.
The Patriots are a very good football team—certainly better than their 3-3 record—but until the secondary shows that it is capable of being anything more than a doormat to the end zone in big moments, New England fans have plenty to worry about.