NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
No positional unit on the New England Patriots has drawn more scrutiny over the past few seasons than their secondary, and the criticism has been warranted.
The Patriots were among the NFL’s three worst teams in each of the past two seasons in passing yards allowed, and a big reason for that was blown coverages and big plays allowed by their secondary.
This season, the Patriots expected their secondary to be better. They upgraded at free safety by signing unrestricted free agent Steve Gregory and drafting Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft, while they expected cornerback Devin McCourty to bounce back from a sophomore slump and second-year cornerback Ras-I Dowling to come back strong after missing nearly all of his rookie season with injury.
Through two games, it appeared that the Patriots had made major progress in this area. The Patriots only allowed 404 passing yards in their first two games, while holding opposing quarterbacks to a 62.9 average completion percentage and only 5.8 yards per passing attempt. However, during Sunday’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots’ secondary was exposed once again.
The Patriots allowed 382 passing yards for the game, while Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco completed 71.8 percent of his passes with 9.8 yards per passing attempt. Noticeably, the Patriots’ secondary also gave up many big plays in the game—nine passing plays of over 20 yards for the game, including six in the second half alone, along with a 27-yard pass interference penalty that set up the game-winning field goal.
The Patriots ranked 31st among NFL pass defenses in 2011, and only gave up that many yards in two games, including their three postseason contests. Additionally, the 9.8 yards per attempt that Flacco had on Sunday night was more than any quarterback had against the Patriots in the entire 2011 season.
So suddenly, the Patriots’ pass defense looks no better than it did before. They had strong showings against Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb, but when going against one of the top quarterbacks in the league in Flacco, they were picked apart.
Looking back at the game, I was able to take a look at each of the Ravens’ 10 big passing plays and diagnose what I found wrong with each one of them on the behalf of the Patriots’ secondary. The findings give a glimpse into where the Patriots’ secondary has its biggest issues:
Play 1: Torrey Smith beats Kyle Arrington down left sideline
Play 2: Jacoby Jones beats Kyle Arrington off of line on slant down middle of field, gets wide open
Play 3: Dennis Pitta screen, missed tackles by both Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty
Play 4: Torrey Smith beats Devin McCourty on post route
Play 5: Torrey Smith beats Sterling Moore down left sideline, Patrick Chung out of position
Play 6: Anquan Boldin beats Kyle Arrington across field on slant
Play 7: Jacoby Jones beats Sterling Moore off of line, poor angle by Moore, missed tackle by Kyle Arrington
Play 8: Brandon Spikes loses Ray Rice out of backfield, missed tackle by Sterling Moore
Play 9: Devin McCourty over-runs as Jacoby Jones stops route
Penalty: Devin McCourty beat off line by Jacoby Jones, pulls down Jones from behind
By my evaluations, it was the Patriots’ three starting cornerbacks in their nickel defense—McCourty, Arrington and Moore—who cost the Patriots this game.
Arrington was the Patriots’ most consistent cornerback in 2011, and actually tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions for the season, but inconsistency has defined his 2012 season thus far.
Arrington has been beaten for big plays in all three of the Patriots’ games thus far, and is looking very uncomfortable playing the slot cornerback role in the nickel defense. Additionally, he had a chance to make a game-sealing interception one play prior to McCourty’s game-losing penalty, but simply tripped over his own feet while trying to track the football.
Then there is the highly frustrating enigma that is the play of Devin McCourty. McCourty’s game was far from being all bad: he made many big plays, including four pass breakups. However, he was also responsible for four big plays by the Ravens’ offense in this game, including two on their final, game-winning drive. McCourty also missed opportunities by dropping not one, but two, interceptions in this game.
Then there is Sterling Moore, who has eclipsed Ras-I Dowling as the third cornerback in the game for the past two weeks. Moore made a big, game-saving play in last year’s AFC Championship Game versus the Ravens, when he batted what would have likely been a game-winning touchdown pass out of Lee Evans’ hands, but in this game, he made no such big plays. Instead, he was a liability, consistently taking bad angles against receivers to give up completions and miss tackles.
For all the reason for optimism in the Patriots’ defense there was after the first two games, it’s hard to be optimistic now.
McCourty, who allowed 1,004 passing yards against him for the 2011 season according to Pro Football Focus premium statistics, was back to his wildly inconsistent ways on Sunday. The Patriots really need him to be their No. 1 cornerback, but if he is a big-play liability, they will have a hard time relying on him to go up against opposing team’s best wide receivers.
Arrington has had a very poor season, allowing 168 yards against him through three games, which is the third-most among cornerbacks who have been thrown at 15 or less times this season, according to Pro Football Focus. As for Moore, the Patriots’ hero in last year’s AFC Championship Game, he looked like he had no place being on the field on Sunday.
Two potential saving graces at the cornerback position are second-year player Ras-I Dowling and rookie Alfonzo Dennard, but don’t count on either of them. Dowling had a strong first game versus the Tennessee Titans, but he played zero snaps versus the Cardinals and only four versus the Ravens, so he appears to be in the Patriots’ dog house. Dennard is a talented rookie, but he has yet to be kept on the 46-man active roster this season.
As of now, it appears the Patriots are likely to struggle just as badly against the league’s top quarterbacks as they did last year. The addition of rookie defensive end Chandler Jones and the improved play of Jermaine Cunningham have improved the team’s pass-rush, but the Patriots’ secondary, especially at cornerback, is still a serious cause of concern.