The deep balls are killing the Pats.
The New England Patriots defense has had its share of struggles through the first half of the 2012 season, but what is most baffling and frustrating is how its problems are primarily isolated to one specific area: defending the deep pass.
In past seasons, the unofficial motto for the Patriots defense was "bend, don't break," and 2011 was perhaps the most egregious example of this style ever. Football Outsiders listed the 2011 Pats as their best ever in "Points Prevented Per Drive".
The "bend-but-don't-break" approach was alive and well just last year.
But in 2012 the Patriots aren't bending, they're just breaking.
The Pats are currently ranked 32nd in the NFL in passes over 20 yards allowed with 42, and they're tied for 28th in passes allowed over 40 yards with six. The bombs are dropping left and right and the Patriots defense has no answers.
This is nothing new really. The 2011 Pats were also the worst in the NFL at giving up 20-plus yard passing plays, but the difference? Last year they gave up just four touchdowns all year out of the 79 20-plus yard completions thrown against them.
But this year through eight games and 42 such completions, they've already given up ten touchdowns.
And it's not just the long passes for touchdowns that are killing the Pats. Even the long non-scoring completions are sustaining drives that consistently end up in points. According to Shalise Manza Young's analysis, the Pats have surrendered 148 of the their total 170 points allowed this year on drives when they gave up a 20-plus yard bomb. That's 87 percent. Ridiculous.
It seems this Patriots defense has gone from "bend but don't break" to "feast or famine." They either force a punt or they give up a long passing play and a score. There isn't much middle ground.
A slightly lesser problem has been 3rd-and-long for the defense. Through eight games the Pats are giving up a first down on 37.7 percent of the third-and-longs they've faced. This is the worst mark the Pats have had in the last decade, though they went a perfect five-for-five on 3rd-and-long situations against the Rams, which lowered their average from an even more atrocious 41.7 percent.
Clearly these two problems are related, so the question is how do you stop the aerial assault on the back end of the defense?
Pass defense is always a combination of pass rush and coverage, and the Patriots' increased use of creative blitzes against the Rams may be a sign of a potential solution. The 2012 Pats have not been a team that loses because the quarterback beats a blitz with a check down, it's a team that loses because quarterbacks have the time and a clean pocket to toss up long passes, so mixing in some more blitzing certainly seems to make more sense than ever.
Of course, you must consider the personnel and performance of New England's safeties. Despite an otherwise generally solid performance against the Rams, we still saw Tavon Wilson fall for the cheese on the exact same play-action that beat him in Seattle to win the game for the Seahawks.
We don't like "error repeaters" but Wilson has been a solid tackler and shown some promise. He could still be the best safety on the roster by the end of the season.
20 of the 43 long passes the Pats have given up have come on first down. That's a clear sign of a team biting on play-action, which signals inexperience and over-aggressiveness.
The best cure for that would be some veterans, but things weren't much better when Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung were back there. If they can get healthy over the bye week, their return could provide a boost for the defense.
What's needed more than anything is for Gregory and Chung to get on—and stay on—the field. They need experience together within the system to improve their communication and execution. I don't think either one of them will turn things around by themselves, but a veteran presence on the back end certainly can't hurt.
There's really no excuse for getting beat as consistently by the deep ball as the Patriots have for the past two seasons. It is not an issue of talent; it's an issue of everyone being on the same page and doing their job. Long passes should be the hardest things for an offense to execute, yet the Patriots just can't seem to stop them.
But the good news is that the biggest problem for this defense is an obvious and correctable one. It is already one of the best run defenses in the NFL, giving up nearly 50 fewer yards per game than last year.
And let's also not forget that this is a defense that was starting four rookies last weekend! They're only going to get better in the weeks, months and years to come; despite this flaw that has haunted them for the first half of this season, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about where this defense is headed.
Defending the deep ball is the last thing that needs to be locked down, and once they do the Patriots just might have a second defensive dynasty in the making.
Mike Dussault is a New England Patriots Featured Columnist and also runs PatsPropaganda.com. He co-hosts the PatsPropaganda & Frenz podcast with AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz. You can follow him on Twitter here.