New England Patriots: 5 Ways the Defense Can Improve in 2011
If you ask New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott, he would tell you that the New England Patriots defense "can't stop a nose bleed." While that may be an overstatement in comparison to some of the other defenses in the NFL, I would be inclined to agree with him in some respects.
It appeared as though the Patriots defense was taking strides at the end of the 2010 season, giving up just 44 points in their last four games for an average of 11 points per game. Against the Jets in the playoffs, stopping a nose bleed was the least of their concerns; they had the Jets to worry about, and Gang Green opened the floodgates with 508 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns.
Of course, it's unfair to judge the defense based on that one game. It does act as a solid reminder of where the Patriots are as a defense, and what needs to be improved. Here are just a few ways in which the Patriots defense could make up for lost ground in 2011.
Pressure off the Edge
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PASS RUSH! There. I said it. Now that I've satisfied the masses...
At the risk of inducing nausea in Patriots fans across the nation, it's fair to point out that the four outside linebackers remaining on the Patriots roster only generated 12 sacks of the quarterback as a group in 2010. Six players in the NFL were able to best that stat on their own.
Many thought the Patriots would pursue one of the many hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker prospects that were available in the draft. For the 11th year in a row, though, the Patriots proved us wrong.
This, to me, is about one word: confidence.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots believe that the current group of linebackers is capable of improving in 2011, and with strong performances from Jermaine Cunningham and Eric Moore in his short stint with the team, I'm inclined to believe them.
Pressure Up the Middle
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I am still among a small contingent of people who believes that better pressure up the middle could have an impact on the edge rush. In fact, collapsing the pocket up the middle could be even more influential than doing so off the edges. It will eliminate the quarterback's ability to step into his throws and force him to the outside, where one of the outside 'backers could be waiting.
The problems with interior pressure weren't a result of poor play as much as injury. The interior pressure will most certainly improve with the return of guys like Ty Warren, Mike Wright, Myron Pryor and Ron Brace. Wright actually led the team in sacks with 5.5, and that was in just 10 games before going down with a concussion in Week 11 that kept him out the rest of the season.
Pair the return of these injured defensive linemen with the improvement (assuming there is improvement) of the outside linebackers, and the pressure woes of 2010 could be a thing of the past even without any big-name additions in the 2011 offseason.
Setting the Edge in Run Defense
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The problems on the outside go beyond simply pressure and sacks, though.
The Patriots ranked 11th in the league in run defense, but the linebackers must also set the edge effectively in run defense. It's worth mentioning that Pro Football Focus singled out Rob Ninkovich and Tully Banta-Cain as the most easily exposed in run defense. Ninkovich missed six tackles on 52 tries for one missed tackle in every 8.67 tries, while Banta-Cain had a 9.8 ratio with five missed tackles on 49 tries.
To see Banta-Cain on this list isn't too much of a surprise. We've known for awhile that he is more of a pass-rushing specialist than an all-around linebacker capable of playing physical in run defense.
The Patriots like Ninkovich in this role, though, as evidenced by Pats Propaganda's Mike Dussault in his snap graph of Ninkovich over his two years in New England. He has played much more frequently against the run-heavy teams than the pass-happy ones.
Perhaps, for Ninkovich at least, it's just a matter of execution. Whatever the case, it's an area that has to improve in 2011.
Coverage on Tight Ends and Running Backs
Once again, I'll defer to Dussault who gives us another intriguing stat about the Patriots defense. Of all the problems the Patriots faced in pass defense last year, two of the three biggest problems in coverage came against tight ends and running backs, where the Patriots ranked 21st and 30th in the league, respectively.
This clearly falls on the inside linebackers and safeties who are tasked with coverage on these guys on a regular basis. Putting a cornerback in to cover those guys might seem like the easiest fix, but that leaves the defense vulnerable if the offense audibles into a running play.
Thus, the Patriots must get better production from guys like Gary Guyton, Dane Fletcher, Rob Ninkovich and the rest of the linebackers when they are asked to cover tight ends and running backs.
Getting off the Field on Third Down
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This really is an all-encompassing issue that involves everything I just mentioned, but the Patriots allowed opponents a 47 percent conversion rate on third down. That's completely unacceptable, and was part of the reason for the playoff loss to the Jets.
Mike Dussault highlights the third-down problems the Patriots faced in that game, and it wasn't pretty. They allowed four of nine conversions on third down in the first half alone. They only gave up two third-down conversions on five attempts in the second half, but that's still 43 percent total between the two halves. A contending playoff defense is looking to allow at most 30 percent conversions on third down.
This particular quote really reveals a lot about that game in particular.
"When you look at what did the Patriots in on third down in this game, it was never Sanchez sitting pretty with all the time in the world because the pass rush couldn’t get there. It was the quick passing game, and lapses in coverage that killed the Patriots. Although it’s clear that the Patriots were not dominating the line of scrimmage on first and second down either.
The selection of Ras-I Dowling makes a little more sense to me after really looking closely at what wasn’t working for the Pats this day. He’s another big, physical corner who should be able to nullify those quick passes by being physical on the line, and he should also be able to shore up a secondary that was far more responsible for the Jets staying on the field than any poor pass rush."
Of course, it's not fair to peg the problems of the defense on one game, but it certainly makes the selection of Ras-I Dowling a much smarter decision in hindsight even while everyone was clamoring for a pass rusher.
The Patriots believe in team defense perhaps more than any other team in the league. The pass rush helps the coverage, and vice versa; the run defense helps the pass defense, and vice versa. None of the defense's success is contingent upon the play of one player or one facet of the defense.
For those reasons, improvement in any one or two of these categories could mean improvement in other categories by association.
As I alluded earlier in the slideshow, perhaps improvement in the interior pressure could help the pressure off the edge that's been lacking. Better coverage on running backs and tight ends could help the pressure get to the quarterback more easily. Any one or two of these could help the defense get off the field on third down.
On and on it goes.
How much improvement we'll see, no one knows.
The Patriots have to improve somehow, or their defense (and their fans) could be in for similar levels of aggravation to last year.