For the third straight season, the New England Patriots defense cannot consistently stop their opponents' passing attack.
Bill Belichick has a reputation as a defensive genius for his work coordinating two championship defenses with the New York Giants in the 1980's and then coaching the Patriots to three more Super Bowls from 2001-2004. However, the Patriots have had major problems defending the pass in recent seasons, and those problems are getting worse.
In 2010, the Patriots finished 21st in the league in yards allowed per pass play. Last season, they finished 29th by allowing 8.0 yards per pass attempt, and this season they are again 29th with an average of 8.1 yards allowed per pass attempt.
The problem isn't just the secondary or the lack of a consistent pass rush, though those are issues. Football is a team game, after all.
The Patriots are 22nd in the league in sack percentage, showing that they do lack a consistent pass rush. They've also allowed the most passing plays of 20 yards or more in the league, suggesting that they also lack talent in the secondary.
However, the linebacking core is also part of the problem as the Patriots are 26th in the league in defending tight ends according to Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders. The middle of the field often appears to be wide open, and the responsibility for that is mostly on the linebackers.
The problem could be the scheme, but personnel decisions are easier to evaluate than schematic ones. The Patriots have missed on several defensive draft picks which have included defensive backs Brandon Merriweather, Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite and Darius Butler, as well as outside linebacker Shawn Crable.
Patrick Chung and Ras-I Dowling are both starting to look like injury prone busts as well.
Devin McCourty, the first-round pick in 2010, was an All-Pro in his rookie season before struggling last year. He's now predominantly playing safety in place of the injured Chung and struggling rookie Tavon Wilson, who the Patriots used a second-round draft pick on this year in a surprising move.
Free agent corner Leigh Bodden was very good in 2009, but injuries turned his four-year contract extension into a complete bust as he missed all of 2010 and was released mid-way through last season. This year's big free agent acquisition, defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene, was released due to injury before ever suiting up for the Patriots.
On the bright side, this year's first-round draft pick Chandler Jones has been the Patriots best pass rusher while flashing serious star potential at defensive end.
Even though the Patriots can't stop the opposition from gaining yards, they've been able to consistently cause turnovers to keep their points allowed total in the top half of the league over the past three seasons.
Although they've been able to create turnovers, the Patriots struggles and health issues in the secondary forced them to the trade market to acquire the troubled Aqib Talib from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a fourth round draft pick. It's a risk worth taking because of Talib's immense talent and the Patriots difficulties in drafting defensive backs.
Yet even if Talib comes back from his suspension for PED use to play at a high level during the final seven games of the season, the Patriots defense will still have problems defending the pass. Talib isn't going to improve the pass rush, and he's also probably not going to help defend the slot or the middle of the field.
Talib isn't going to save the Patriots defense, but he can help to incrementally improve it. If he can play to his potential, and if Chung can get healthy and play to the potential he flashed at the beginning of his career, the Patriots will be able to move McCourty back to corner.
A secondary of Talib, McCourty and Kyle Arrington at corner with Chung and Gregory at safety would allow the Patriots to at least put their most experienced defensive backs on the field at the same time.
Will that be enough to finally stop the opposition from passing the ball up and down the field every Sunday? Possibly, but after three years of evidence to the contrary, I'll have to see it to believe it.
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