The New England Patriots are still searching for their identity on offense, but they're getting closer to that goal because of the return of key players like wide receiver Danny Amendola, tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Shane Vereen.
The defense is dealing with injuries of its own, but unlike the offense, there's no cavalry coming to save the day.
It's nearly reached the tipping point, that oh-so-familiar feeling for Patriots fans that this team will go as far as the offense takes them. Again.
The Patriots have gotten by with less than their ideal starting lineup for the past few weeks, but there were a pair of new absences on Monday night, with safety Steve Gregory and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard inactive against the Carolina Panthers. During the course of the game, cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington were both removed because of injuries—not the first time that's happened for either one.
Indeed, the Patriots were being carved up by Newton to the tune of a 125.4 passer rating, the third-highest by any quarterback against the Patriots since 2009, according to Pro Football Reference. But they were without their No. 2 cornerback and No. 1 strong safety for the game's entirety and were missing their No. 1 and 3 cornerbacks for stretches as well.
Those players will come back, presumably at full health, at some point this season. Others, however, will not. Linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are long gone, but the Patriots have been dealing with those absences for several weeks.
|Patriots' run defense: with and without Wilfork and Kelly|
|Games||Rush att./gm||Rush yds/gm.||YPA||TD||TFL||10+ yds|
The run defense has taken a nose dive since losing its top two defensive tackles. Joe Vellano and Chris Jones have been serviceable in rushing the passer, but they were never meant to be space-eaters, guys holding multiple blockers at the point of attack.
Against the Panthers, the Patriots were mostly able to stop the run. Carolina's running backs combined for just 41 yards on 16 carries. Cam Newton himself accounted for 62 rushing yards, with 54 of those coming on pass plays where the defensive line lost containment on the Carolina QB, allowing runs of 25, 14 and 15 yards.
In some respects, Monday night's loss could be viewed as an anomaly. Newton's dual-threat ability makes him one of the rarest quarterbacks in the NFL, and toughest to defend.
"It's just a tough situation where you got to contain a quarterback that can run the ball, that can throw the ball," said defensive end Rob Ninkovich following the game. "So it's our job as a defensive line to keep him in the pocket. So if we don't do that, bad things happen. And I hold myself accountable for a quarterback that scrambles. That's on everybody on the d-line. We're not supposed to let that happen."
There won't be as much stress on pocket containment against Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning this week—they know where to find him—but the Patriots do have to worry about a few other injuries Manning could expose.
New England's secondary is limping into the Sunday night showdown with Manning, who is having the best season of his 16-year career. Without those players, the Patriots stand little chance of slowing down the Broncos offense.
With those players? The story is much different. Few secondaries have the resources to cover Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker, but when healthy, you can count the Patriots among those groups.
|Patriots pass defense|
|Year||Comp %||YPA||Rate||+20 yards|
In fact, this is the best pass defense the Patriots have had in years.
Those players will return, and the Patriots pass defense should return to form when they do.
One area that remains a major concern, though, is the secondary's performance on third down, where it yields conversions 42.7 percent of the time according to TeamRankings.com. The Panthers went 7-of-10 on third down including one conversion resulting from a New England penalty.
Three of those, as mentioned before, were on runs in which Newton broke containment. But the Patriots defense once again lives and dies by turnovers.
The Panthers showed what a good offense can easily do to the Patriots defense: possess the ball for long stretches, wear down the defense and end drives with scores. Once again, the formula may be to play keepaway from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady as long as possible.
As injuries to key players pile up, the Patriots must begin to wonder whether they still have the resources to shut down the better offenses in the NFL. In that respect, their game with Denver will be very revealing for what we can expect from the New England defense from here on out.
Until we get a consistent look at the Patriots' top unit playing together against top-quality offenses, there's no way of gauging how it will play in the postseason. If it's not healthy by the postseason, though, there is a way of knowing what to expect. Just watch the tape from Monday night.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.