The Patriots got pounded on Sunday by the Pittsburgh Steelers. There weren't a lot of bright spots, and most of the blame has fallen on the secondary. Once you get past Devin McCourty, Pat Chung and Kyle Arrington we're super thin. I had a thought, actually pertaining to the release of Leigh Bodden. In the past few weeks we've had a series of seemingly indiscriminate transactions involving (the releasing and resigning of) Phillip Adams, Malcolm Williams, Sterling Moore and Josh Victorian. My guess is the Leigh Bodden release has been coming for a little while, and this cut-and-release strategy was being used to get multiple defensive backs familiar with the system, quickly, without taking up the bulk of the roster. Anyway, that's not what this post is about, so let's proceed.
I don't know what this post is about, actually. The patriots did a lot of things badly this weekend. There are several mini-FanPosts I'd like to open to discussion.
- Will the Line-backing Core Gel With Mayo Healthy?
Brandon Spikes is a really big part of our defense now. His energy and ability to stop the run have aided an already pretty strong goal-line defense. Spikes is one of my favorite players, but how long can Spikes and Mayo stay on the field with the current state of the secondary? Both are best suited to play inside. Their our two best linebackers, and it's Mayo who is going to have to prove himself in pass-coverage. Going forward, to protect the secondary, we're going rely more on 3 or 4 man rushes and that means Mayo will be stuck in coverage for most plays. The first drive Sunday was especially ugly because we were blitzing too many linebackers, we weren't jamming the tight end and there wasn't enough time for the pass rush to get to Big Ben. If Gary Guyton and Rob Nincovich are making an impact in pass protection, who do you sit? What's worth more, Spike's intensity or Mayo's talent?
If Mayo and Spikes are going to be on the field together, other players need to step up. The defensive line needs to create pressure on their own. Specifically Andre Carter and Albert Haynesworth. The two players need to continue to improve. The defense front is our strength, and if we can rely on them going forward there could be a ripple effect throughout the defense.
Rob Nincovich needs to do a better job jamming the tight end as well. We had good pressure on the first drive Sunday, but Heath Miller (and on some plays everyone) was open and gave us major problems. Taking the tight end out the play at least gives the secondary a chance to make some stops. We were able to do it earlier in the season, we just have to get back to doing it.
- Taylor Price and A Predictable Offense.
I'm worried about Aaron Hernandez. You should be too. Yep, he's a match-up nightmare for opposing defenses. A huge luxury even. He's good... okay.. I'm not that worried. We shouldn't rely on him though. He's been a little bit banged up, and this season he's made a few mistakes that could have cost us games, mistakes that can not happen in the playoffs. Against the Jets his drop caused a turnover and cost the Patriots a score going into the half and against the Cowboys he had a fumble that derailed a possible scoring drive and almost cost the Patriots the game. Both of the miscues were covered up when the team went on to win the game. We shouldn't forget about them though. Those mistakes lose games in the playoffs.
Taylor Price will get his chances in the coming weeks. Bill O'Brien is calling for more of price in the offense. There's probably too much emphasis placed on "stretching the field" but the Patriots offense has been grounded since the Bill's game. The entire offense would benefit from someone like Taylor Price becoming a factor. Sunday, against the Steelers, Brady had an opportunity to hit a wide open Price for a big gain, but he under threw it and it ended up being an in-completion. There was also a bit of pass-interference on the play that went uncalled. But oh well.
- Bend-But-Don't-Break Has Never Seemed More Fitting.
That must have been the ugliest 23-point game I've ever seen a defense play (If you exclude the safety at the end of the game.) The biggest difference between the defense we had last year is we just haven't done a good job causing turnovers. The defensive backs aren't anywhere near the ball when the receivers when they catch the ball, at least they weren't Sunday. Until we start getting in there and contesting passes, we can't expect that to change. The interception by Guyton was a good play, and was the result of good coverage. But it was still a bad, bad throw by Roethlisberger.
The defenses saving grace is the goal-line defense, and It's the one thing the defense has really improved on from last year. It's been solid all year, and it really showed up Sunday. 3/5 in the red zone is pretty remarkable, and the accomplishment is even more noticeable when the team driving against you got inside your twenty without breaking a sweat. We've got a really good defensive front, Brandon Spikes has been huge in that department, and almost made the stop on third down at the end of the game to get the ball back in Tom Brady's hands.
So if the best we can hope for going forward is no big play's, with a defense that thrives in the goal line, is that enough to win a superbowl? It seems nice in theory with the type of offense we're used to having. The only problem is these drives eat up time, and whether they score or not that opponent is going to dictate the tempo of the game. Even if we stop them at the goal line, and hold them to a field goal, 8 minutes could tick off the clock. Then the pressure falls on the offense, and if they falter, we start playing catch-up. That's what happened Sunday.
- We Shouldn't Have On-Sided
Poor game management last Sunday. It's not something I worry about going forward. I trust hoodie. But he should have challenged the catch by Gronkowski at the goal-line. Losing the one time out wouldn't have lost the game, and the reward of winning the challenge was far greater than possibly losing 25-30 seconds on the final drive. But I have a bigger gripe.
Boy was I frustrated by the decision to onside. The defense was awful Sunday, yes. But could you imagine the sort of long-term boost the defense could of gotten by stopping the Steelers at the end of the game? The team, remember, is only a bye week away from stopping the Cowboys in an identical end of the game situation. Kick it away, Bill. I just didn't like the call. If the defense makes the big stop, we turn a really negative game for the defense into another triumph. That's a more valuable victory then the one we could have had over the Steelers if we recovered the onside kick.
- Where's the Spark-Plug?
BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Kevin Faulk were the only backs to carry the ball Sunday. Now, their certainly not "slow", but I'll use the word methodical. Last year, Danny Woodhead was our change of pace back. He hasn't been able to repeat the success this year. He doesn't look as quick. Our two rookies, Ridley and Vereen, haven't been able to earn themselves more playing time. But we need one of the three to step up and provide that spark out of the backfield. It would be nice to see Shane Vereen active next week, in place of Stevan Ridley, perhaps.
Also, I think people are finally starting to look at the return game as a serious area of concern for this team. Is it the blocking? Do we really miss Sammy Morris that much in the return game? Other teams around the league are finding a way to return kickoffs past the 30, but we've had trouble generating anything all season in punt or kickoff returns.
I wonder if Taylor Price and Shane Vereen are being held out of the return game to prevent them from re-injuring their respective hamstrings. Their the only two players we have left who fit the bill. Woodhead, Ridley, Welker, Slater and Edelman have all been given a shot at returning kicks. It's just something to keep an eye on.
This post isn't meant to be negative. I just wanted to point out all the ways this team can still improve on Sunday's performance outside of the secondary. This is about the time in the season where certain teams emerge as the legitimate contenders and take their game to the next level. We're going to have to address all over these areas if we want to cover up the holes in the secondary.