New England Patriots Progress Report: Where Do They Stand Headed into Week 11?
Too close for comfort.
Not Gillette razors, but football at Gillette Stadium (and anywhere else the Patriots play).
It's been a wild season for the Patriots already, but the regular season has become trivial in New England, where fans have grown accustomed to double-digit wins and first-round byes.
With the Ravens and Texans both sitting ahead of New England in the standings, the latter of the two scenarios may not be in the cards this season, but there are still seven games left to go and a lot of time for things to change.
Where do things stand now? Let's take a look in our weekly progress report.
Primary Talking Point
When will the Patriots defense turn the corner?
Heck, subtract the "when" from the previous question while you're at it.
With two weeks to prepare for the Bills and to self-scout its own issues, the Patriots defense looked every bit like the defense we've come to know over the past 10 weeks, and even dating back to last year, allowing 31 points and 481 yards to an average offense.
The biggest concern for the defense is that it needs to be able to get it done in the playoffs against what will be considerably better competition than the offense it faced this past week.
We will get our answer in the coming weeks, as the Patriots face off against good quarterbacks in Andrew Luck, Matt Schaub and Alex Smith in the final seven games of the season.
The Patriots could be without both of their starting guards for Sunday's home game against the Colts.
Devin McCourty: Caught the game-winning interception in the end zone. Granted, he may not have had a chance to had it not been for a poorly run route by T.J. Graham, but overall, McCourty has helped stabilize the back end of the defense. The Patriots are still giving up some big plays in the passing game, but not as often of the long bomb variety.
McCourty must love facing Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick; all four of his most recent interceptions dating back to Week 17 of 2011 have come off Fitzpatrick passes.
Brandon Spikes: He was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Fitzpatrick this week, but the middle linebacker has 21 tackles and nine assists in the past three games, marking half of his tackle production for the season.
The Patriots have struggled in their coverage of tight ends, but Spikes' elite instincts against the run have helped New England field one of the best run defenses in the league, giving up just 3.8 yards per carry.
Rob Ninkovich: Was named to ProFootballFocus.com's 'Had a Bad Day' team for Week 10 after getting one sack, one hit and one pressure of Fitzpatrick. He has always been one of the more versatile players on the team, but he struggled no matter where he lined up on Sunday.
Dont'a Hightower: Got exposed in coverage, looking bad enough that Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe wondered aloud why he wasn't benched following a certain series where he missed a jam on tight end Scott Chandler and then got caught too far upfield on a separate play. Also graded out as the second-worst Patriots defender in coverage for the week according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Stats to Build On
Brady is playing some of the best football of his career, but it is going largely unnoticed because he's not carrying as heavy of a burden as we're used to. Brady is just three-one-hundredths of a percentage point off the pace of his 2010 interception percentage of 0.81—the lowest of his career—and he could hold two of the three best single-season performances in that number in NFL history if he keeps pace.
That's the Patriots' defensive yards per rush attempt, the fifth-best average in the league.
New England could build off this if it could put consistent pressure on the quarterback, but it still struggles in that area. Its defensive tackles are both great at two-gapping, with Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork imposing their will on the gaps between guard and center and closing off lanes up the middle.
If New England could find a way to utilize its bountiful success against the run to help shut down the pass (cornerback blitzes, anyone?), the defense might finally get its ship right before the playoffs.
Stats to Improve On
18.9 and 15.7 Percent
That's the Patriots' defense-adjusted value on average against tight ends and running backs in coverage, respectively, according to Football Outsiders. They rank 26th in that measure at covering tight ends and running backs.
That's a damning indictment on their linebackers. They are built to stop the run, with Spikes and Hightower both listed at over 6'2" and over 260 pounds, but they're not the quick type of linebacker that can run and cover well.
That is New England's average yards gained per kickoff return, which ranks them 18th in the league.
That's not so bad, right? Well, when you take away Devin McCourty's 104-yard return for a touchdown, that number dips all the way to 19.4, which would put the unit among the four worst in the league at returning kicks.
The Patriots have long been searching for an answer to their struggles returning kicks and ranked 29th in 2011 with 21.4 yards per kickoff return.
The offense does well enough to move the ball on its own, but surely the good field position couldn't hurt, right?
At 6-3, the Patriots are firmly in the driver's seat in the AFC East, where it was a dead heat just four weeks ago.
Now, New England has a chance to pull away with a home game against the Colts. Let's not count the eggs before they hatch, though, as the Colts have caught fire recently with four straight wins to get to 6-3. The Colts haven't seen a quality opponent (team with a winning record) since Week 5 against the Packers, but with 10 days of rest, they have an advantage in that regard.
The Patriots get to call in the cavalry with the addition of cornerback Aqib Talib, who could help their problems in pass defense, but will not remedy all the woes.
Will the Patriots end up with a first-round bye in the playoffs?
We'll see exactly how much he helps going forward, but with a schedule that features some talented quarterbacks, he'll be tested right from the get-go.
So much of what the defense will look like for the remainder of the season could depend on how Talib plays. If he is a success, we could see a lot more man coverage underneath with Cover 2 on the back end. If he struggles, there could be a long road ahead for a secondary that won't change much and has been exposed already.
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 via team press releases.
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