Opposing offenses don’t fear Devin McCourty, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork or anyone else on the Patriots’ defense unless you count impending free agent Aqib Talib. That isn’t to say they don’t respect them or their talent, but respect and fear are two very different things.
I respect my mother, but even if she had a gun I wouldn’t be afraid of her. Conversely, I have no respect for Terrell Suggs who shows zero class and can’t help himself from spewing insults and trash talk even after a well-deserved win.
But as an impact player who shows no regard for his own safety, playing through severe injuries with a relentless motor, you better believe I fear him. He, along with most of Baltimore’s defense, is an enforcer.
Love them or loathe them, they inspire fear in opponents, and little by little, crush their spirits and their will to win. They did it to the Patriots in the AFC title game and New England had no answer. If that sort of schoolyard beatdown looks familiar to Patriots fans, it’s because that’s exactly what Belichick’s defense used to do to Peyton Manning and the Colts, only now the tables have turned.
For the better part of the 2000s, Indianapolis was at or near the top of the conference standings and was an annual threat to lead the NFL in scoring. Manning commanded the ultimate respect from defenses, and opposing teams knew they had to be at their best to beat him. I doubt anybody was ever actually afraid of those Colts though; the Patriots certainly were not.
As much respect as Manning and the Indy offense rightfully commanded, if you could disrupt their timing and play with toughness, you could—and usually would—beat them. They were soft on both sides of the ball, and if you could keep their offense under 28 points, chances are, you would come closer to a Super Bowl than they would.
Patriots fans may not like to admit it, but that’s exactly what New England is right now: soft.
Gone are the days of Ty Law and Rodney Harrison roaming the secondary. Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi are not walking through that door any time soon either. Instead, Belichick has constructed a deep, talented roster of players who seem unwilling to bring the hammer down.
In the NFL, if you are not the hammer, you inevitably become the nail, and lately, the Patriots have been getting hit right on the head. They are a finesse team trying to win a physical game. Precision and skill will score points, get teams into the playoffs, maybe even set a few records in the process. But at some point, you need to be capable of—or at least willing to—hit the other team harder than they hit you, which is something the Patriots haven’t done in almost a decade.
Starting in 2007, the Patriots have been among the top-five scoring offenses in the NFL in all but one season in which Brady was healthy. They lead the NFL in scoring in each of the last two seasons and have nothing to show for it.
They scored a total of 30 points in their two most recent playoff losses, which is less than they averaged over the course of the past two seasons. That’s what used to happen to the Colts when they faced tough teams. Just like those Indianapolis squads, the Patriots are being knocked out of their comfort zone, and all those precise timing routes and brilliant schemes are wilting when confronted with aggressive defensive play.
Of course Brady and the offense can’t be perfect every week—and not having a healthy Rob Gronkowski in either of those losses certainly hurts—but when it’s time for the defense to step up and carry their weight, they collapse like an antique rocking chair beneath Vince Wilfork.
For the Patriots, adding talent to their defense is not enough. They have talent already. Wilfork, Mayo, McCourty and even Rob Ninkovich have played at Pro Bowl levels at various points. What they need more than talent is to restore the hammer mentality.
Re-signing Talib would be a nice start, as he would represent the kind of lockdown cornerback the team has lacked since Ty Law left. He also allows Belichick to keep McCourty at safety, which has proven thus far to be a much better fit for the former top draft pick.
Brandon Spikes has also played with tenacity and a real mean streak in spurts, so his continued development would go a long way toward reviving that elusive killer instinct. Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower are obviously works in progress, but like Spikes, their continued improvement is crucial to New England’s short-term and long-term success on defense.
There’s recently been a lot of buzz that the Patriots might be interested in signing Ed Reed this offseason (as reported by ProFootballTalk here). While his level of play has tailed off as he nears the twilight of his career, his veteran leadership and intimidating presence would likely be the perfect tonic for a fanbase made sick to its collective stomach by apathetic defense.
New England’s championship window is closing. With Tom Brady entering his late 30s and Bill Belichick likely to follow him through the retirement door rather than stick around for what would be a massive rebuilding effort, the team’s focus should be on finding players who will help them win right now.
It needs to start with attitude. The difference between a winning attitude and one of complacency is often the difference between winning and losing. The Patriots used to believe they could beat any team in the league. With continued success, that attitude has shifted to where they now expect to win.
That sense of entitlement is more dangerous than any virus if it permeates the locker room. Simply by virtue of being the Patriots, they are going to face teams with a chip on their shoulder come playoff time.
If they don’t have the physical and mental toughness to respond, they will lose, as evidenced by three playoff losses at home in the past four years. With each loss, the team seems less passionate and more matter-of-fact with no real drive to get better. By this point, New England’s accomplishments have begrudgingly earned them league-wide respect, but all the respect in the world won’t win a Super Bowl.
It’s time to change the culture in Foxboro and find some players with no laurels to rest on who are hungry, nasty and who can instill a little fear in that locker room, and more importantly, on the field.