NEPD Editor: Mike Loyko
This will be my one and only article on this topic, at least for awhile. After watching another meltdown in the 4th quarter, compounded by the inability of the defensive backs to make routine plays in pass coverage.
I have had enough.
I have had enough of watching an opposing Quarterback launch a Hail Mary pass from their own 30 yard line knowing that there is more than a 50% chance that their receiver will come down with the ball or at the very least the opposing defensive back will interfere in the process. I have had enough.
So who’s to blame and what is going on back there?
When I have so many thoughts racing through my head on one topic, I find I can organize them best when I make a list. There is no rhyme or reason to the order of things on this list, but these are observations and thoughts I have on why the Patriots secondary has become the laughing stock of the NFL.
1) The Patriots need to develop talent.
Since the 2008 NFL Draft the Patriots have used six, six, SIX first or second round selections on defensive backs. I’ll just go down the list CB Terrence Wheatley (2nd/2008), S Patrick Chung (2nd/2009), CB Darius Butler (2nd/2009), CB Devin McCourty (1st/2010), CB Ras-I Dowling (2nd/2011), S Tavon Wilson (2nd/2012).
That is an absurd amount of draft capital to spend on the secondary in the span or four year. You figure just playing the percentages that you would hit on a couple of those guys. But, not one outside of maybe Devin McCourty, who has turned into a reliable starter in the Patriots secondary, and we all known McCourty has his flaws.
Many players have stepped right in to the Patriots system and excelled immediately. In 2009, Darius Butler looked like a legitimate building block at CB (anyone remember the pick six in Houston?). The following year Devin McCourty came in as a rookie and became an All-Pro corner, leading the team with seven interceptions. Hell, even Terrence Wheatley looked pretty good his rookie year, until injury sidelined him. Last year Ras-I Dowling showed flashes of legitimate talent. Despite missing all of training camp he started week one in Miami and did an impressive job and looked good the next week vs. San Diego until he got hurt.
Despite those early successes none has developed or built on that early success. Darius Butler came into the 2010 season with high expectations and had an atrocious season. He was released the following training camp. Devin McCourty was being mentioned in the same breath of some of the top corners in the league only to have a disastrous campaign, that saw him get beat time and time again. It ultimately led to him being moved to safety late in the season.
Ras-I Dowling took 1st team and sub-package reps throughout the preseason and started the Titans game, only to barely see the field since. There is a definite trend here and the question has to be asked, why the regression from year one to year two? Do the Patriots try to tinker with players technique too much? In McCourty’s case they made a very good zone cornerback try to play man over and over. He looks uncomfortable and unnatural. But, why else? It has to be a coaching point or scheme issue to answer the question why these defensive backs who look like NFL caliber corners regress in the Patriots system.
2) When I look at the Patriots secondary right now I see a bunch of mismatched pieces.
There are a bunch of players playing in a scheme in which they don’t belong. Let’s go player by player.
Devin McCourty has already proven to be a decent zone cornerback. When he keeps the ball in front of him, he is very good going forward and can make plays on the ball. He is one of the best tacklers at the position as well. But, he can’t play man to man defense. He struggles too much to locate the ball and struggles to turn and run with receivers espeically after he gets a jam on them. He looks uncomfortable and can tell he has no confidence when put on an island. Devin McCourty is built well for a cover 2 scheme.
As has been talked about a lot of the last two days Patrick Chung is being asked to play FS in a cover 2 scheme right now and he’s struggling. Last season when he was allowed to come down into the box, play run support and cover the tight end he was pretty good. To play cover-2 safety you have to have great instincts, play disciplined and you have to have the ability to break from the hash marks to the sideline in a split second and close the gaps that will be left in the defense. Pat Chung lacks the instincts and can be seen on film a split second late time and time again.
When I think of Tavon Wilson who was playing cover-2 safety yesterday, I definitely don’t see a player who fits that scheme. Wilson is a thick player who has looked good when asked to cover tight ends in man coverage or play in the 5-15 yard range. He has struggled in space and in zone coverage. He has made some undisciplined mistakes that have cost the team big time.
Ras-I Dowling is a big physical player, who should be put in a position to play man coverage or at the very least press coverage, but he’s not.
Kyle Arrington is built well for a slot cornerback and looks decent in the 10-15 yard range. But, he’s not playing there on a full time basis.
It’s not a stretch to say that Alfonzo Dennard has looked like the most natural cover cornerback up to this point in the season. At least he finds the ball. The bottom line is this, when you look at the Patriots secondary there are a bunch of pieces that don’t fit together and are being put in a position where it’s tough for them to succeed.
3) In game play calling especially at the end of games is atrocious.
When the Patriots have a lead in the fourth quarter they play too conservative on defense. They play not to give up the big play, but that is obviously not working. The Seahawks were able to orchestrate two scoring drives with ease in the fourth quarter, both of over 55 yards and both with big pass plays being the difference. Sidney Rice, yes I know the WR was able to get a pass interference called on Devin McCourty (surprise) by throwing up a prayer and getting bailed out because he couldn’t find the ball.
I haven’t watched the game rewind yet, so I am not sure what coverage they were in, but I am guessing it was a soft cover two. Then on the final drive Tavon Wilson, who admitted he was in a cover 2 took the double move and allowed the receiver to get behind him for the winning touchdown.
This is nothing new.
Let’s go back to last year and the Colts game where the Patriots were up 31-3 and had to hold on for dear life to win the game. Or the AFC Championship game where they allowed the Ravens to march right down the field making big play after big play. They should have lost the game if not for Sterling Moore getting incredibly lucky and Billy Cundiff.
Then the Super Bowl where they were in a cover 2 scheme and Patrick Chung was late getting to the sideline to break up the pass to Mario Manningham.
The Ravens game in 2012 was more of them same. Marched right down the field, one big play after another. Aided by yet again a pass interference call by Devin McCourty. The Broncos game the Patriots had to hang on for dear life and if not for a turnover inside the 15 yard line who knows what happens.
One thing is certain the scheme and aggressiveness of which the Patriots call plays at the end of games has got to change. It’s one thing if the other team was making difficult play after difficult play, but these drives are just easy. The Patriots are offering little resistance and just hoping the clock runs out or that they can force a turnover.
Somebody needs to be held accountable. Is Matt Patricia or Josh Boyer the one making the calls at the end of games? I doubt it, but if so that has to change. If it’s Bill Belichick making the calls, time for someone else to come up with the play and personnel design, because whatever they are doing isn’t working.