New England Patriots: Time for Bill Belichick to Show Genius with Depleted 'D'

Drew BonifantAnalyst IIMarch 24, 2017

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30:  Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers returns the ball on the opening kick off against Kyle Arrington #24 of the New England Patriots at Heinz Field on October 30, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

All right, Bill. Let's see the magic.

Let's see that X's and O's hocus pocus, Coach Belichick.That famous schematic wizardry. That defensive know-how that has you on the path to Canton once you hang up your headset and hoodie.

Your secondary now relies on James Ihedigbo, Antwaun Molden and Phillip Adams. You'd better have some tricks up your sleeve.

The New England Patriots are in a comfortable position in the standings and dire straits on the field. They were in a tough position entering this weekend after releasing cornerback Leigh Bodden and putting rookie corner Ras-I Dowling on injured reserve, and that position morphed into a full-fledged crisis when they realized that—go figure—Adams and Molden aren't very good at stopping NFL wide receivers.

The result was a 25-17 loss to Pittsburgh, quite possibly the most lopsided eight-point loss in the league in a long time. Ben Roethlisberger threw 50 times, a number that would normally suggest a lack of balance in the offense. This time, however, it was a perfect strategy.

After all, when the secondary consists of a waived Houston Texan in Molden, a two-time cut this year in Adams and undrafted free agent signings in Kyle Arrington and Ihedigbo, how do you not play arena football against that group?

Whatever the Steelers did, New England didn't have an answer for. Ever. On first down, backs like Mewelde Moore and Rashard Mendenhall caught passes all alone in the flat. On 3rd-and-short, Heath Miller was unaccounted for and allowed to run freely through the middle of the field. On 3rd-and-long, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace were left to their own devices five yards beyond the marker.

As a result, third downs were a party for Pittsburgh, which had 16 of them and converted 10, punting only once, when the game was out of reach. Oh, but Wallace, with seven catches for 70 yards, didn't have any big plays. Hooray. Congratulations.

It was a mess, and it's what Belichick signed up for. He released safeties Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders and Brandon McGowan before the season, and cut Bodden knowing that Dowling was going to be done for the season. He's got to figure out a way to make it work.

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30:  Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers catches a pass in front of Antwaun Molden #27 of the New England Patriots during the game on October 30, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

It's not like Belichick hasn't been here before. In 2004, season-ending injuries to Ty Law and Tyrone Poole forced Belichick to trot out no-names Asante Samuel (a second-year corner) and undrafted free agents Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland into starting roles and receiver Troy Brown into the nickel back slot.

It worked out, and Belichick was hailed as a genius for keeping his eventual Super Bowl-winning team humming along.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of differences between that group and this one. For one, Samuel was an eventual Pro Bowler. The New England coaching staff in 2004, which included defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and defensive backs coach Eric Mangini, was far better. And, let's not forget, that '04 defense, with Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour, had plenty of talent away from the corners.

But one thing both teams have in common is Belichick. He has to prove that that trumps all else. He has to prove that he still has the touch and ability to get a group of misfits, especially one that he hand-picked, to play solid defense. Not great, but solid.

If he can, this can still be a good season in Foxborough. This Patriots team has shown an ability to be mentally tough and for one unit to pick up the other. When the defense struggled against San Diego, the offense was brilliant. When the offense couldn't get going against Dallas, the defense gave it a chance.

What can't become the norm is the defense from this past Sunday. With that defense, the Patriots are doomed. It's just too crippling for a defense to be that unreliable. Defense becomes even more important in the playoffs, and the teams that can't stop an opponent never win. The Patriots may have a good offense, but it's not that good. No one's is.

So Belichick has to find an answer, and he has to do it with this group. There are no trade possibilities to save him, no stud corners, linebackers or safeties in the free agent pool. The group everyone saw out there Sunday getting torn apart by the Steelers is the best hope for the 2011 New England Patriots. The solution has to be on the field and on the sideline already.

Sounds like a job for a true genius. But hey, that's been Belichick's label. For this team to have a shot, he'll have to live up to it.