Coach Bill Belichick will attempt to disrupt Andrew Luck, the Colts' talented rookie quarterback.
For fans of the New England Patriots, worrying about the team’s secondary is akin to most Americans’ worries about things such as the economy or global warming. Year in and year out, it continues to be a problem and has proven to be anything but a quick fix to repair.
The struggles in New England’s secondary have continued in 2012, as the unit ranks 29th in passing yards allowed per game. A big test is in line for the Patriots on Sunday, when they take on the Indianapolis Colts and sensational rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.
Dismantling the New England pass defense is expected to be a cakewalk for Luck. Several less-talented quarterbacks (Russell Wilson, Mark Sanchez and Ryan Fitzpatrick, to name a few) have posted huge numbers against the Patriots already this season.
Some changes have been made in New England, however. If the Patriots’ secondary continues its woeful ways, at least it won’t be for a lack of addressing the issue.
In any case, there are several reasons to believe that the embattled New England pass coverage could show a different side than the doormat everyone expects them to provide for Luck and the Colts on Sunday. Here are three to get you ready for kickoff.
Outside of Luck, there isn't a lot to fear about the Colts' offense.
As bad as the Patriots’ secondary may be, it always helps to know what’s coming. Against the Colts, the New England defensive backs have no reason not to be ready for an offensive game plan that will directly target them.
The likely one-dimensionality of the Indianapolis attack that New England will try to stop on Sunday is a product of both the Colts’ offense and the Patriots’ defense.
We’ve already noted the inability of the New England secondary to contain its opponents—no matter who they are—earning them the fourth-worst passing yardage per game statistic in the NFL. The Colts, meanwhile, have relied on Luck’s arm for more than 71 percent of their total offensive production this season.
The ground game for each squad has been an entirely different story. The Patriots boast the eighth-best run-stopping defense in the league, while the Colts have amassed just the 16th-most rushing yards. More telling is the fact that of the mere seven rushing touchdowns Indianapolis has scored this season, Luck himself has been responsible for five of them.
Indianapolis will throw early, often and throughout the game on Sunday, and the New England secondary has no excuse not to be ready. Pressure from the defensive line, of course, will be important as well, as much to hurry Luck into some poor decisions as to contain his ability to scramble and create plays on his own.
The Patriots obtained the talented cornerback from Tampa Bay before the trade deadline.
The Patriots made it clear that they are committed to improving their secondary by picking up talented cornerback Aqib Talib from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before the trade deadline. Though volatile and incident-prone off the field, the same attitude that has gotten Talib in trouble will also bring swagger to a unit that sorely needs it.
Reports declare that Talib has fit in well with his new team so far and is getting ready to take the field on Sunday. His new role will be a vital one.
His presence gives the Patriots, for the first time in a long while, a shutdown corner that should be able to hang in man-to-man coverage with opponents’ No. 1 receivers, like the Colts’ Reggie Wayne, or at least shut down a No. 2 option while the likes of Wayne are double-teamed.
Luck has targeted 15 different receivers with his 362 pass attempts this season, but more than 30 percent of them have gone to Wayne. The 34-year-old receiver’s 931 yards are second-best in the NFL, and place him more than 400 yards above any other Indianapolis wideout. Wayne’s numbers account for more than 35 percent of the Colts’ total passing production.
Though it’s much easier said than done, limiting Wayne will be vital for New England on Sunday. The addition of Talib at cornerback could be exactly what is needed to do so.
McCourty's late interception against Buffalo last week saved the game for the Patriots.
As porous as the New England secondary is, it does one thing exceptionally well: take the ball away.
That will be exceptionally important against the rookie Luck, whose talent is offset somewhat by his inexperience—through nine games, the young quarterback has committed 16 turnovers (nine interceptions, seven fumbles) to go along with his 15 total touchdowns (10 passing, five rushing).
Forced turnovers have bailed the New England defense out many times this season, most recently when the game was on the line last week against the Buffalo Bills.
Clinging to a six-point lead as Buffalo put together one last drive, Patriots safety Devin McCourty intercepted Fitzpatrick—who had already passed for 337 yards and two touchdowns in the game—in the end zone with 23 seconds remaining.
The game-saving pick was the latest crucial turnover forced by a Patriots defense that leads the AFC with 23 takeaways and is best in the entire NFL with a +16 takeaway-to-giveaway ratio.
While McCourty has failed so far to live up to the No. 1 cornerback potential he showed when he was drafted out of Rutgers and snagged seven interceptions in his 2010 rookie season, he remains a huge playmaker for the Patriots.
His move to safety—originally necessitated by injury to starting safety Patrick Chung—may become permanent. The move is made possible by the addition of Talib at cornerback and could help redefine and rejuvenate McCourty’s career.
However the Patriots’ defensive backfield takes the field on Sunday—and whomever they place at any given position—it will need to force some turnovers to help negate Luck’s ability to move the ball against it.
And with the high-powered New England offense sure to do plenty of damage of its own, that should be enough to do all that can be asked of any Patriots’ secondary in recent years: get the job done and simply hang on for the win.