Despite injuries and turnover, the New England Patriots have been one of the most consistent and dominant teams in the NFL over the last four seasons. They've gone 55-17 overall, including playoffs, and have been in the hunt for the Super Bowl every year.
However, the Patriots have done so with glaring weaknesses on their defense—problems that they cannot seem to fix in critical areas.
There are two that stand out and are truly inexcusable.
Since 2010, the Patriots are the worst defense in the NFL on third down.
Since 2010, the Patriots have given up more 20-yard-plus plays than any other team.
|Patriots Defense: 3rd Down and Big Plays|
|3rd Down %||NFL Rank||20+ Plays||NFL Rank|
These stats go against everything we've come to assume we know about a Bill Belichick defense. They give up big plays, they can't get off the field and everyone else in the NFL is better in both areas. Really.
There have been changes to scheme and personnel, but the Pats just can't seem to fix the problem.
Is the problem the secondary? The Pats had one of their best groups of defensive backs in years this season. This also fed into the schematic change toward more press-man coverage in 2013, a welcome departure from the soft zones of recent years.
Still, their weaknesses remained, even with Aqib Talib playing like a shutdown corner and Devin McCourty solidifying the back end of the defense.
Once Talib was lost in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots defense fell like a house of cards. They gave up eight plays of 20-plus yards in Denver. And even with Talib in the lineup against the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round, the Pats still gave up six 20-plus plays.
Is pressure the problem? The Pats had the fifth most sacks in the NFL this season (48), their highest sack total in Belichick's career in New England. But sack numbers are often overrated. In Greg A. Bedard's "Pressure Points" rankings for MMQB.SI.com, the Patriots were consistently in the bottom third of the NFL in creating pressure all season long.
What's the plan this offseason to tighten up the Pats defense in these critical areas?
Here are our three areas of focus:
1. Interior Pass Rush
Injuries to the Pats front seven certainly affected what they could do on defense and the pressure they could generate. Chris Jones looks like he could develop into a solid rotation player who can be a disruptor in the middle of the defense, but he can't do it alone.
Armond Armstead also could make an impact in this area, but how much can they count on Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, both returning from major injuries? The Pats must protect themselves if Wilfork and Kelly aren't the same players.
The interior defensive line has the quickest line to the quarterback, and that's where the Patriots should focus—especially for their base defense, as nearly 50 percent of the big plays they've given up in the last four seasons have been on first down.
A quality interior rush will also help free up the defensive ends to make more plays.
2. Designated Pass-Rusher
The Patriots started the season with rookie Michael Buchanan (two sacks) in the designated pass-rusher role, but when he failed to generate enough rush they brought in Andre Carter. He (two sacks) wasn't the same player he was in 2011, but he was more reliable than the rookie Buchanan—especially on keeping contain on draw plays.
The lack of a solid third defensive end is one of the bigger holes on the Pats defense and one that has no doubt contributed to their problems on third down. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are three-down players but were exposed in the thin air of Denver last weekend.
Generating a consistent pass rush for four quarters is a group effort, and it's clear that the Pats need to upgrade their defensive ends to become less reliant on Jones and Ninkovich. Perhaps Buchanan can take a big step forward in 2014, but the Pats can't afford to rely on that.
Expect them to be in the market for a defensive end both in free agency and the draft.
3. Bring Back Talib
The Patriots have a lot of very good pieces in place in their secondary. They have a good three-man rotation at safety with Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory and Duron Harmon. Cornerbacks Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard all are tough and competitive, but it's Aqib Talib's presence that takes them to the next level.
That has been obvious when Talib went down in the last two AFC Championship Games.
Shutdown corners are almost impossible to find without overpaying in free agency or spending on a high-first-round draft pick. The Pats have had two seasons of Talib and, at times, he's looked like the best corner in the NFL.
His injuries should bring his price down a bit, but regardless, the Pats need him back, even if they have to overpay a bit.
They can't afford to go back to the kind of primary-zone defense that gets eaten alive every time they try to run it against the better quarterbacks. There are no elite defenses without an elite corner, and Talib is as close as the Pats have gotten to one since Ty Law.
Despite the stats, the Patriots' defense looked far better at times in 2013 than we've seen in a long time. They are not far off, and injuries certainly derailed a lot of the progress they looked ready to make.
If they can add a couple impact players to their front seven—whether by return from injury or an outside acquisition—and bring back Talib, they should be ready to put the big plays and third-down problems behind them once and for all.
Mike Dussault is a Patriots Featured Columnist who also writes and edits PatsPropaganda.com.