New England's secondary is stumbling. Can they right themselves?
Don’t give up hope on the New England Patriots’ 2012 campaign, folks. Yes, the Pats secondary is in tatters, ripped to shreds by QBs whose admittance into Canton is likely predicated on their purchasing a ticket. But—and I say this with wildly cautious optimism—there are ways the pass defense can be fixed.
Granted, there’s no Mike Haynes on the Patriots roster. There’s no Ty Law or Rodney Harrison, either. To that end, it’s not likely this will morph into a top-10 secondary come playoff time. But there is enough talent on New England’s defensive depth chart to aspire towards league-average performance.
With the top-scoring offense in the league, an average pass defense may be all the Pats need to make a playoff run.
Let’s take a look at a few ways New England can maximize their defensive talent to make their pass D tenable in an increasingly pass-happy league.
Keep Devin McCourty at Safety
Yes, it seems counterintuitive to take away one of your few solid corners and stick him at an unnatural position. But the Patriot defense desperately needs a centerfielder to lock down the deep middle.
In other words, the Pats need a free safety.
They’ve tried rookie second-rounder Tavon Wilson in that role, but his instincts haven’t yet developed enough to defend the deep ball on his own. His decision-making has often been just a split-second too late to make up ground on open receivers and make a play on the ball.
With starting safeties Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung out last week against the New York Jets, the Pats paired McCourty with Wilson in the deep middle.
Jets QB Mark Sanchez still racked up 328 yards, but most of it came from picking on beleaguered CBs Kyle Arrington (11 targets, eight catches for 99 yards) and Alfonzo Dennard (seven targets, six catches for 91 yards) as well as LB Jerod Mayo (five targets, five catches for 60 yards) (all target stats per the wonderful blog Dave’s Breakdown).
McCourty, for his part, played well—he locked down the deep-middle and forced Sanchez to make plays to either sideline (which, to his credit, he did).
I thought he did a pretty solid job from what I could see. We’ll take a little closer look at it, but I thought the deep part of the field was more secure than it has been.
The Pats typically divide the field in half and give each safety responsibility for their side, but that scheme doesn’t suit their personnel anymore. They no longer employ Rodney Harrison or Lawyer Milloy, safeties who were stout in run support and could provide tight coverage.
As such, they should consider a more traditional SS/FS scheme, with McCourty reading the QB's eyes, closing quickly and making plays on the ball. Wilson, Gregory and Chung should battle it out for the SS spot (Chung, with his wood-laying tendencies, seems to fit best). The remaining safeties should rotate into the base defense and play in certain nickel or dime packages.
The player best suited to do that is McCourty, and that’s why he should stick at safety.
Have a Little Faith in Ras-I Dowling
Dowling was hurt in the fourth quarter of the Pats’ Week 7 matchup, but when he’s fully healthy, the second-year corner has earned more playing time.
Dowling has the size (at 6’1”, he’s the Pats’ tallest defensive back) and speed (4.4 second 40-yard dash) to stay with receivers.
Yes, the penalties are a problem. Dowling was called for defensive holding twice in the Jets game, and has the third-most penalties on the team despite playing limited snaps.
But that’s something Dowling should be allowed to work out for himself on the field. After all, many of his penalties are a result of good, physical jams at the line of scrimmage, something that the Pats haven’t been able to do to receivers consistently.
He did well in taking away Sanchez’s binky, the quick slant, in Week 7. Dowling was in tight coverage on Sanchez’s failed third-down slant attempt to Chaz Schillens in the end zone when the score was just 16-10.
Overall, Dowling was targeted just three times in 22 snaps against the Jets, yielding only one reception for 11 yards.
Given the sorry state of the Pats secondary, Dowling deserves a chance to replace Arrington as a starting cornerback. If he realizes some of his potential, Dowling could help the Pats solidify a defense that yields too many big plays along the sidelines.
Take Brandon Spikes Off the Field on Passing Downs
There’s a lot of love for the play of Brandon Spikes circulating around New England. Much of that praise is warranted: Spikes is among the best run-stuffers in the NFL. With three forced fumbles, he’s just one behind teammate Rob Ninkovich for the league lead.
The Pats defensive front does a good job of setting the edge and funneling runners into Spikes' arms, and it’s a big reason why they’re tied for second in the league in rushing yards per attempt at 3.3.
But what has been overlooked is Spikes’ ineptitude against the pass. In fact, he’s just as bad against the pass as he is good against the run.
Put simply, he’s the worst blitzer on the team. It’s amazing to watch a man with so much strength get stonewalled on nearly every timing blitz. In coverage, his instincts don’t make up for his lack of quickness, and he gets beat over the top consistently.
To that end, he shouldn’t be playing on third down. The Pats need a big-time pass rush to get off the field on decisive downs, and Spikes doesn’t provide it. It’s not the end-all be-all of pass-rushing statistics, but it is at least somewhat telling that Spikes has never had a sack in his career.
Spikes played 71 of a possible 84 snaps against the Jets (per Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com). That’s too many snaps for a situational player. Brandon Spikes needs a platoon partner (or partners) to sub in for him in obvious passing situations.
When the defense lines up in a nickel formation (five defensive backs), the linebacker pairing should be Mayo and rookie Dont’a Hightower. They can replace Spikes with another coverage guy like Alfonzo Dennard or Kyle Arrington as a nickel back. Alternatively, they can swap out Spikes with Ninkovich as a coverage linebacker, and put interior rusher Jermaine Cunningham at LE.
Taking Spikes off the field on passing downs frees up Hightower and Mayo to blitz the QB more, since they won’t have to be pressed into coverage duty to make up for Spikes’ shortcomings.
That will help a defense that has had trouble pressuring the QB. The Pats have created pressure on just 16.7 percent of snaps, lowest in the NFL (per Greg Bedard of Boston.com). If they can up that number with some improved blitzing minus Spikes, it will take the onus off the Patriots defensive backs to hold coverage for extended periods of time.