Patriots Progress Report: Secondary Out to Prove Itself Headed into Week 10
It was not an average bye week for the New England Patriots.
Not a lot has changed for Bill Belichick's crew since the 45-7 tail-whipping it laid on the St. Louis Rams at Wembley Stadium in Week 8. That is, unless we're going to talk about the trade of a fourth-round draft pick for embattled Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib.
The question now is, will he get more?
The remaining slate of quarterbacks may not have looked murderous had we discussed this subject in the offseason, but with two showdowns against a steadily improving Ryan Tannehill, the first episode in the saga of Tom Brady vs. Andrew Luck and back-to-back outings against highly-efficient quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Alex Smith, the Patriots secondary will be tested in the final eight games.
And they'll be doing it while under reconstruction. Second-year corner Ras-I Dowling has been placed on season-ending injured reserve. Safety Patrick Chung has missed two games, and Steve Gregory has missed four games.
Alfonzo Dennard has assumed a much larger role, playing 194 out of 206 snaps (94.2 percent) over the past three weeks at an increased rate each week. Devin McCourty has made the full move to safety in the past couple of games.
"I think in the back end we have a very close-knit group," said Patriots cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer before the trade for Talib (per Patriots.com). "I think those guys have a good chemistry together, they work very hard, they’re here all the time, they watch film together, they’re working to improve. There are some good things that we’ve done and there are some things that we need to improve on. I think those guys are all headed in the right direction."
The Patriots have given up a lot of plays in the passing game, but the most prominent, of course, have been the big plays. The Patriots have let up 42 pass plays of 20 yards or more this season.
It's never about just one unit, though. The pass rush could shoulder some of the blame for the litany of big plays that have been perpetrated on this defense.
"Defensively that would be a big area for us, is to limit the number of big plays," said Belichick (per Patriots.com). "That's a whole team defensive thing. It's not one thing. Anytime they throw the ball deep down the field, that involves pass rush, it involves pass coverage, it involves possibly scheme depending on how you're playing it. But yeah, we can improve in every area."
The Patriots have only gotten pressure on opposing quarterbacks on 85 out of 306 drop-backs in the first eight games (27.8 percent), according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Defensive end Chandler Jones has made a case for himself as defensive Rookie of the Year, but he can't do it by himself. The Patriots need to get more pressure from up the middle, with defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love combining for only 14 pressures, two quarterback hits and two sacks.
The struggles had ballooned from Weeks 4 thru 7, but the Patriots finally put the brakes on against the Rams. Their ability to carry that momentum out of the bye will be important to set the tone for the second half of the season.
But it's about more than just big plays. In fact, the Patriots defense has gotten worse in nearly every statistical category in the last four games.
Talib has a lot of talent, but he won't right the ship entirely. If the Patriots are going to get better on defense this year, it will be a team effort.
What once appeared to be a defensive rebuild nearing its completion now looks like the blueprint was lost somewhere between the foundation and the shingles.
The Patriots will have to weather the storm in the second half of the season, but if they can do enough patchwork to slow the flooding to a leak, they could get themselves in "good enough" shape headed into the playoffs.
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 or via team press releases.
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