If you asked New England Patriots fans or pundits what's needed to fix their defense, you'd likely get a variety of answers, most likely to include all or some combination of the words "pass rusher", "punishing strong safety", "Ed Reed", "Aqib Talib", or "a time machine".
But when you dig into the numbers, it's clear where the prime focus for improving the defense this offseason must be.
Addressing their first-down pass defense.
That might sound overly specific, but it's really just that simple.
When we talk about first down we're talking mostly about the base defense, and in games where the Patriots played a majority of their base defense, they gave up nearly half the passing yardage on first down. They also lost three of those six games.
The teams that attacked the Patriots early and often through the air against their base defense were the ones that had the most success. They tried to evolve their base defense in 2012 to put more athletes on the field and get more pass rush, but the results did not match their intentions.
Looking deeper at the first down numbers we find that the Patriots did actually improve from 2011 to 2012 in average passing yards on first down, but the glaring problems were the decade-high 16 touchdowns on first down, as well as a decade-low seven sacks, less than half their season average over that time span (14.1).
For those who indiscriminately say the Patriots simply need "pass rushers", they actually had 18 sacks on third down in 2012, the highest total of the last the decade by four sacks. So to spend a huge chunk of cash on an aging defensive end to serve merely as a designated pass rusher in the sub-defense would be an unnecessary waste.
When the Patriots wanted to stop the pass with their sub-defense they could. They were 9-1 in games where they played a majority of sub-defense, and the one loss was against the Arizona Cardinals when they were in base 49 percent of the time.
While we've prescribed an evolution to the base defense, to use a more traditional 4-3 tackle who can get upfield and get pressure on early downs as a potential fix, it's also fair to consider if Brandon Spikes is really the right fit at middle linebacker.
There's no doubt Spikes is a dominating presence against the run and brings an intimidating attitude to the defense. The Patriots had their best run defense of the last decade in 2012, but the trade-off was the coverage in the middle of the field against tight ends and slot receivers was atrocious and has been for the the last two seasons.
This also indicts in-the-box safety play, so those pining for someone like Ed Reed, or hoping Tavon Wilson makes a big jump in year two, you are on the right track.
We could cast a critical eye on Rob Ninkovich as well. Yes, he's come through many times in the clutch, but are they really getting enough consistent pass rush out of him?
In the big picture, the Patriots must ask themselves if they can pay a little less attention to stopping the run on early downs, and focus even more on the pass. The answer would reverberate through personnel, scheme and play calling, and it's already started behind the scenes with how much they're offering Aqib Talib.
It was clear when teams gave up trying to run on early downs, like the Baltimore Ravens did in the second half of the AFC Championship, the results were not pretty for the Patriots defense.
This is why it seems unnecessary to make sub-rushers and cornerbacks the primary personnel focuses for the offseason. The pass defense against outside receivers was the strength of their pass defense.
The real areas to watch are at defensive tackle, linebacker and strong safety, three positions that can immediately impact the pass defense from base personnel, and solve the biggest problems of the last two seasons.
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