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Buying or Selling New England Patriots' Defense as Playoff Caliber

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 23:  Torrey Smith #82 of the Baltimore Ravens catches a 25-yard touchdown recpetion in the second quarter against Kyle Arrington #24 of the New England Patriots at M&T Bank Stadium on September 23, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Drew BonifantAnalyst IIOctober 16, 2012

Believe it or not—and for many of you, it's likely the latter—the New England Patriots do not have a bad defense.

Not when you look at it piece by piece, that is. The Patriots line stops the run. The front seven has made progress in the pass rush, and the linebacking corps pursues and tackles well.

That just leaves us with the secondary. And that secondary...goodness gracious.

Following another blown lead and another stunning loss, this time to Pete Carroll's Seattle Seahawks, it has to be asked whether this is the worst pass defense in the entire league. Time after time, New England's offense builds up a commanding lead, one that with any professional football team should be all but insurmountable.

The Patriots have a history losing these games. Peyton Manning's done it to them. Joe Flacco's done it to them. Ryan Fitzpatrick's pulled it off. And now Russell Wilson, fresh off of his sixth career start, can be added to the list.

Looking at the parts that make up this unit, it's easy to see where the struggles come from. Devin McCourty runs and covers very well, but his lack of basic ball-tracking skills overrides those talents and lead to flags and long completions whenever he's tested deep.

Kyle Arrington can't keep up with his man in coverage. Ras-I Dowling can't even get on the field ahead of Arrington. Patrick Chung is either slumping or has regressed in his coverage instincts and ball skills. Nate Ebner and Tavon Wilson, as they showed at noisy CenturyLink Field, can't be trusted to be in the right place at the right time in big moments.

It's become clear that, while Chandler Jones can get to the quarterback and Brandon Spikes can blow up the run, this defense is not Super Bowl caliber. It's not playoff caliber. It's not even division champion caliber.

Not yet, at least.

Because just as important as that realization is the one that the Patriots have been down this road before. A few times. And each time, as the season wore on, the defense—and the team—improved.

The Patriots struggled without Ty Law and an injured Rodney Harrison and struggled with Duane Starks in 2005. They struggled without Asante Samuel and with Deltha O'Neal in 2008. They were worse at the start of last year than they have been so far this season.

Bill Belichick's teams have rarely plugged up their holes in a week's time. The instruction has taken the course of the season to sink in. Players have needed time to learn and adjust to new roles.

That's what happened in those years.

By January of 2005, the Patriots were at their most dangerous. By the end of 2008, a tiebreaker was all that kept New England out of the playoffs and a crack at several teams which prayed that the Patriots would be left out. By the end of 2011, the Patriots were on their way to a Super Bowl berth.

How far these Patriots will go remains to be seen. But they'll get better.

In other areas of the defense, they already have. Jones's presence as a dynamic pass-rusher has added a new dimension. The Patriots have been stingy against the run after struggling in wins over Denver and Washington last year.

If the Patriots learn to cover, everything else will fall in line. That's a big "if", however. It's been the soft underbelly of this defense for five straight years.

But in most of those years, New England survived. The Patriots got better. Doing so this year is a tall task. But they don't have to look far for encouragement.

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