A New England Patriots defense that is already reeling from several (read: 39) big blows to their secondary just took another shot in the form of cornerback Ras-I Dowling being placed on injured reserve, as announced by the team on Friday.
Don't expect this to be the knockout blow—that would imply the Patriots were counting on Dowling in a big way, which they haven't been—but this is not a good sign for a defense, specifically a secondary, in need of someone, anyone to step up and prevent the abundance of big pass plays on their watch.
What does Dowling's injury mean for the rest of the defense?
Short-Term: Shortage at Cornerback
Dowling's size and speed were seen as huge positives in his ability to play man coverage, where the Patriots have struggled in recent years. The most likely starting candidates at cornerback would be Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard, who were the team's starting cornerbacks for last week's game against the Jets.
Former starting cornerback Devin McCourty was moved to safety, which was facilitated by injuries to Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung. Both were inactive against the Jets, and will be inactive yet again this coming week.
If McCourty is going to remain a safety, the Patriots enter Sunday's game against the Rams with only four cornerbacks on the active roster in Arrington, Dennard, Marquice Cole and Sterling Moore. Dowling was not relied on heavily in last week's game, playing just 22 snaps of a possible 84 (26.2 percent, according to ProFootballFocus.com), and has only played 19.8 percent of the snaps in the six games he's been on the active roster.
With so many injuries and other moving parts in the secondary, the bigger concern as it pertains to this week could be simply their lack of depth. If an emergency should arise, they may be forced into situations where safeties Nate Ebner and Tavon Wilson play a significant role.
Remember the last time that happened?
So do I.
Up against some speedy receivers in Chris Givens and Brandon Gibson of the Rams, the Patriots secondary will have its hands full to stop the long ball once again, and will be doing so short-handed.
Long-Term: A Secondary (Still) In Flux
With eight career games and two starts under his belt, it's too early to tell whether Dowling is a lost cause at cornerback. According to The Boston Herald, Dowling is expected to be fully healthy in time for offseason workouts, but if he can't stay healthy, what hope there was for him might fade rather quickly.
If Dowling's time is up in New England, where does that leave McCourty? The Boston Globe reported earlier during the 2012 offseason that the plan was to move McCourty to safety, but those plans were nixed when the lack of talent at cornerback became evident.
Where does that leave McCourty going forward?
It appeared as though we were finally getting our answers for what this Patriots defense might look like for the next three to four years, potentially longer. This injury, coupled with the team's defensive performance to date, has left the Patriots with plenty of questions.
Whether Dowling is part of those answers remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: We won't find out this year.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.