Maybe when Bill Belichick gambled on fourth-and-two, he was right to think his defense couldn’t stop Peyton Manning and the Colts. New England’s Monday night performance at the Superdome only reinforced the fact that Belichick’s defense is a mere shadow of what it was during their Super Bowl run.
For the second time this season, the Patriots, who themselves took an undefeated season to Super Bowl XLII two years ago, lost to an unbeaten team on the road in primetime.
But unlike the “Rivalry of the Decade” game in Indy, where they dominated the Colts for the better part of three quarters, the AFC East leaders were smacked around in every facet by an impressive 11-0 Saints team that continues to surprise with their explosive offensive attack—and stout defense.
Drew Brees torched the Pats for 371 yards passing and five touchdowns, including a 75-yard bomb to a wide open Devery Henderson during New Orleans' 21-point second quarter. It broke the game open en route to the 38-17 blowout victory.
The busted coverage on Henderson’s TD—with no defender within 15 yards of him—was also a play that exemplified how New England’s defense has performed in 2009, especially against the league’s top team.
Leaving the dubious fourth-down call aside, the unit couldn’t stop Manning with a pair of 17-point advantages. In New Orleans, they didn’t give their offensive counterparts even a chance to take a lead.
Sure, the Patriots shut out the winless Titans in a blizzard at Gillette Stadium, but Tennessee was still seeking out an identity. Since then, defensively it’s only proven itself to give up the big play in three of their four losses to date—whether it’s on the ground or through the air.
New England is only the 12th-best defense in the NFL, allowing 313 yards per game, and its front seven has struggled to stop the run with 109 yards against through 11 games.
Part of the problem stems from the fact the Pats have lost significant pieces from their defense in the last two offseasons—most notably Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel in the secondary through free agency and recently Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour, who were both shipped off to the AFC West.
Now, without that strong veteran presence on the field, the losses defensively seem to have finally caught up with the team. In the past, even during the Super Bowl-winning seasons, Belichick managed to replace veterans in key position with young talent, but that's no longer apparent.
The Patriots will most likely survive a pretty watered-down AFC East division, which boasts only one team above .500 in this New England squad at 7-4. But major concerns on defense put Belichick’s bunch in the second tier of the AFC and may mean the difference between a Super Bowl contender and a mere playoff team.