If the New England Patriots fall short of a championship this season, fans will look at the injury-plagued defense as the "woulda, coulda, shoulda" of the 2013 campaign.
The Patriots defense made undeniable strides in September, but it is fruitless to consider what this unit may have accomplished with the likes of Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly. Bill Belichick likes to preach a forward-looking mindset, and Pats fans would be wise to do the same.
So what is this unit capable of as currently constructed? Aside from an impressive showing against a Ravens offense with a crippled wing, the Patriots defense has been on a downward spiral in the season's second half. However, there have been no more catastrophic injuries, and a potential first-round bye would do wonders for the team's banged-up secondary.
If the Patriots can enter their first playoff game with reasonable health, then there is little reason to believe they cannot have success against any AFC (or NFC) opponent. Yes, the margin for error is smaller than it was in Week 1, but the Pats defense as constructed is still championship-caliber.
What will the Patriots need to do to fulfill that potential in January, and who must step up as a result? Here are three keys the unit must execute to satiate Foxboro's championship-or-bust expectations.
This sounds obvious, and yes, it's true that any defense is better when it can force more turnovers.
But the success of the New England defense is particularly tied to its playmaking ability, given the personnel deficiencies that have made it difficult for it to be a shutdown unit from play to play.
From Weeks 1 to 9, the Pats gave up just 5.0 yards per play, the 10th-best mark in the league. However, since the team's Week 10 bye, that number has spiked to 5.7 per play, the 8th-worst mark over that timespan.
Fortunately, the Patriots are in a better position to fulfill that requirement in 2013 than they were in past seasons. Previously, the defense benefited from the offense putting the opposition in a hole, which allowed it to sit back in soft zone and take advantage of the inevitable mistakes a team often makes when forced to pass every down.
With better secondary personnel, the Pats have been able to play tighter man coverage for the majority of the season. Though nearly every starter has had a nagging injury at some point, the lack of season-ending catastrophes on the unit has allowed the Patriots to keep their preseason plans largely intact.
The Patriots' first interception against the Ravens last week was a good example of this. The Pats tipped their hand that they were playing man coverage when Kyle Arrington followed Marlon Brown in motion before the snap, and look how tight the corners were on their receivers:
Many criticized Joe Flacco for an ill-advised throw on this play, and that is true to a certain degree. Flacco probably should not have forced the sideline throw with linebacker Dont'a Hightower dropping so deep. And yet, with the pocket collapsing, what other option was he supposed to throw to on this play? Look how blanketed the receivers are at the moment of his release:
Though the interception was a product of Hightower's well-timed leap and deflection, the play call allowed rookie Logan Ryan to be in position to make the play. In zone coverage, the corner may not have been in position to make a play on this tip:
The Pats have had success all season playing Devin McCourty as a single-high safety in man coverages, with Steve Gregory and the linebackers playing underneath.
McCourty's range and Aqib Talib's competitiveness in shadowing top receivers have allowed the complementary dominoes to fall into place. It helps that rookies Logan Ryan (more on him later) and Duron Harmon have been solid when called upon in relief as well.
Admittedly, New England's two interceptions came against a hobbled Flacco, and two more turnovers in junk time were gifts from backup Tyrod Taylor.
But what's more important is that the Patriots put themselves in position to take advantage of opponent mistakes. There will be fewer of those opportunities against better postseason offenses, and when they do arrive, the Pats must take advantage of them.
Dictate the Tone in the Trenches
Of course, the secondary could use some help from its friends up front. The Patriots front seven turned in arguably their most impressive performance of the season in physically overwhelming a Baltimore line that has bullied New England in the past. Per Jerry Spar of WEEI, a pair of Patriots defenders realized that dictating a physical tone to Baltimore was the key to the resounding victory:
The Patriots responded to questions about their ability to match the Ravens’ toughness with a strong effort on both sides of the ball.
“Whenever you play Baltimore it’s always a physical game, hard-hitting game,” Arrington said. “You definitely want to throw the first punch. I think we came out, strike fast and then never look back.”
Said Ninkovich: “Every time we play them, it’s always a physical game. I’m very sore today. It’s just the way it is. When you look at the schedule to start the season, I just knew this was going to be a tough game. We always play each other tough."
Unfortunately, that kind of effort has been few and far between, though understandably so due to the tremendous attrition on the front seven.
The inability to bring a more consistent play-to-play effort means that the unit tends to disappear for stretches at a time, a pattern anyone who watches Patriots games can notice. While some of the sack and tackle numbers look nice, consider the overall PFF grade of New England's current defensive linemen, a metric that measures their play-by-play effectiveness:
|Pro Football Focus Grades, NE D-Line|
|Player||Snaps||Run D Grade||Pass Rush Grade|
|via Pro Football Focus|
As you can see, the majority of the Patriots defensive linemen are generally below average despite occasional bursts of playmaking. This play against the Miami Dolphins only went for a seven-yard gain, but it encompasses a lot of the problems that have gone wrong with New England's defense.
Right away, you'll notice that Miami has the play blocked perfectly, as every Patriots defender loses his one-on-one matchup and gets pushed back:
Fortunately, Dolphins back Lamar Miller bizarrely hesitates and decides to cut back despite the wide-open gap. This is a gift that should have bailed out the Patriots and created a negative play. When Miller turns back, he finds two defenders in his face:
But Chandler Jones and Alfonzo Dennard both take poor angles to the runner, and Miller is able to scramble away. That forces McCourty to make the tackle from the back, and the Dolphins get about eight or nine more yards than they really deserved:
That stands in direct contrast to the Patriots' relentless effort and focus against the Ravens, when the defensive line was able to maintain gap integrity for nearly the entire game. No Baltimore running back had a run longer than nine yards, and 14 of the Ravens' 28 runs went for three yards or less.
No one is asking New England's current personnel to replicate Wilfork's two-gaping dominance or Mayo's sideline-to-sideline range and awareness. That is an impossible task.
But it is certainly possible for the Patriots' current personnel to play with a physical edge that makes life extremely difficult on the opposing offense. Even with diminished talent, it is very difficult to sustain consistent success against the Patriots defense when everyone is pulling in the same direction.
Expanded Roles for Rookie X-Factors
But while New England undoubtedly misses its veteran stalwarts, rookies Jamie Collins and Logan Ryan have shown signs that they can provide important contributions, not only in the future but in the 2013 postseason run. The duo saw sporadic playing time for much of the season, but as they have grown comfortable in the system and earned Belichick's trust, their playing time has benefited accordingly:
|Collins and Ryan Snap Progression|
|Span||Ryan Snaps||Collins Snaps|
|via Pro Football Focus|
Ryan has earned acclaim for his playmaking ability, and indeed, his five interceptions and six pass deflections are undeniable boons. However, it's his physical man-to-man coverage that stands out, as it dovetails perfectly with the Patriots' preferred scheme.
In that sense, Ryan is a bit reminiscent of teammate Alfonzo Dennard—a smaller corner who does not necessarily have track-star speed, but has the physicality, ball skills and smarts to be a competent No. 2 corner.
Even when Ryan does not pick off passes, his positioning is usually solid enough to force a positive result. This third-down play against the Dolphins is a perfect example. Ryan is the corner following receiver Rishard Matthews in motion before the snap:
Even though Matthews makes a nice move to get inside for the slant route, Ryan is able to subtly hook him a bit, though not enough to draw a pass interference call. He does not make the deflection but stays close enough that Ryan Tannehill has almost no window to throw into. Matthews fails to make the diving catch, and the Pats get a critical stop.
Collins meanwhile has finally started adding defensive contributions to supplement his already stellar special teams presence. The Patriots have begun turning to the rookie more in sub-packages, and he's rewarded that decision with three pass deflections the past two games.
For instance, here he displays both his athleticism in dropping into center field and covering tight end Dennis Pitta as well as his smarts by calling out the likelihood of Flacco checking down to one of his underneath targets:
The Patriots have been missing a standout coverage linebacker for years now, and Collins' selection was an attempt to remedy that issue.
He's been up to the task so far, and even though he does not play the majority of the snaps like Ryan, his role is just as critical because of the context in which he usually lines up. The above play was on 3rd-and-5, and if you watch Flacco's eyes, Pitta was his first read on the play:
The rookies could be especially critical in a potential matchup against Denver, whose multitude of receiving options present headaches for nearly any defense. At least athletically, Collins and Ryan possess the ability to help the Pats contain the likes of Eric Decker and Julius Thomas.
Decker and Thomas would be the top targets on most teams but are only the third and fourth options on the Broncos. Most teams don't have the depth to stop Denver, but the Pats proved the first meeting they are deep enough to stay competitive.
And apart from the Broncos, no AFC playoff team really has a particularly threatening array of weapons. The Patriots are thinner than desired up front, and consequently, they don't have as many game-changing difference-makers. But if they execute consistently and efficiently within the scheme, there is no reason the Patriots defense cannot propel New England on a deep playoff run once again.
*All stats courtesy Pro-Football-Reference or Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required).