NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
The New England Patriots are taking momentum into their bye week, coming off of their most dominant performance of the season in a 45-7 victory over the St. Louis Rams.
With a one-game lead in the AFC East, and on a two-game winning streak with three consecutive games against teams with losing records following the bye week, they are in good position to win their fourth consecutive division title, and 10th in the past 12 seasons. The Patriots also have the league’s best points differential, +92, with a league-leading 262 points scored compared to just 170 points allowed.
But while there are many positives about the Patriots’ first half of the season, and where they stand going into the second half with a 5-3 record, their first-half struggles should also not be ignored. Their three losses are more than they were expected to have at this point, and all three losses were the result of costly fourth-quarter mistakes. The Patriots have not lived up to expectations, and have some real issues that must be corrected going forward if they are to make it back to the Super Bowl.
With the bye week falling immediately at the halfway point of the regular season, these are five questions that the Patriots should be trying to find answers to before hitting the season’s homestretch.
1. Can the secondary be fixed?
There is virtually no debate as to what the New England Patriots’ biggest problem has been this season. As has been the case for many years, the Patriots have one of the league’s worst secondaries, which has cost them multiple games already this season, and could continue to going forward.
The Patriots’ pass defense ranks 28th in the NFL, allowing 281.1 passing yards per game, largely due to blown coverages in the secondary leading to big plays. These big plays can already be attributed as a deciding factor in two losses this season: the Patriots gave up 10 passing plays of more than 20 yards in their 31-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, while they gave up three of more than 40 yards in blowing a 14-point fourth quarter lead and losing to the Seattle Seahawks.
One reason for the Patriots’ secondary struggles has been injuries. Both of the team’s starting safeties, Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung, have missed at least the past two games with injuries, while cornerback Ras-I Dowling was placed on an injured reserve with a thigh injury. But even if Gregory and Chung return healthy following the bye week, the problem may not be rectifiable.
The Patriots simply do not have strong enough personnel in the secondary to avoid being exposed again.
The team’s best defensive back is third-year cornerback Devin McCourty, but his great plays are often offset by aggressive mistakes, and if the team continues to be affected by injuries at safety, they will likely continue to playing him at safety as they have the past two games.
Two rookies, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and safety Tavon Wilson, have both shown high potential this season, but are inexperienced and have had their share of rookie mistakes as a result.
Even when Gregory and Chung are healthy, neither is particularly adept in pass coverage, meaning that the Patriots will likely to continue to give up big plays over the middle of the defense throughout the season. The Patriots’ other two key cornerbacks, Kyle Arrington and Sterling Moore, have both been liabilities with poor pass coverage through the first eight games.
There is no problem that needs to be fixed more urgently than this one, but unfortunately for the Patriots, that probably will not happen until next season at the earliest.
2. Will the Patriots be able to close out games in the fourth quarter?
It could be argued that the Patriots should be 8-0 at this point in the season. The Patriots were in position to win every game that they lost this season, but fourth-quarter mistakes have killed them each time.
In their two most recent losses, the pass defense has not been solely at fault. Tom Brady and the Patriots offense have been unable to put together fourth-quarter to keep their struggling defense off the field, and the team has seen two-score leads evaporate both times.
In the Patriots’ first loss to the Arizona Cardinals, middle linebacker Brandon Spikes made a huge play to force a fumble and set up a potential game-winning field goal, but placekicker Stephen Gostkowski missed wide left from 42 yards out.
The Patriots nearly collapsed again for their fourth loss of the season two games ago to the New York Jets, falling behind after allowing three scores in a span of just four minutes, but they finally showed late-game resolve. Brady led game-tying and game-winning drives to end regulation and in overtime, both which ended by Gostkowski field goals.
Closing out games, however, remains a major area of concern. The Jets likely would have put that game away had it not been for a third-down drop by a wide-open Stephen Hill on the Jets’ last scoring drive, and if the Patriots were 4-4 right now, this column would have a very different outlook.
Brady is still one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, but he has yet to prove this season that he can still be the clutch quarterback that he became so well-known for during the team’s Super Bowl runs in 2001, 2003 and 2004. Gostkowski is unlikely to be a problem going forward, but given that the defense is susceptible to giving up big plays, the offense has to continue to be aggressive and make plays late in games to score points or keep their defense off the field.