Note: Sorry for the inactivity on my end. Finals have been going on the past two weeks. Not very fun considering I've got senior thesis / term projects for all three of my majors/minors. But it all comes to a close Friday at midnight, so we should be getting back to our normal activity on the blog starting then.
In many ways, the Patriots' defensive performance against the Washington Redskins on Sunday was a microcosm of the entire year the Patriots have had on that side of the football. The soft-zone coverages allowed the Redskins to pick up a lot of yardage and even a fair amount of points, but in critical moments, the Patriots defense was able to slow their opponents down in the red zone, get the occasional sack, and ultimately come up with enough plays to win the game.
So yes, while the Patriots did make one of the NFL's most erratic starting quarterbacks, Rex Grossman, look like an elite quarterback, they were able to make some plays. A few defensive notes that I came up with when re-watching Sunday's game:
- Patriots defenders, especially their linebackers and safeties, have no idea how to play soft zone coverage. Redskins receiver Jabar Gaffney was simply able to run 10-20 yards down the field, sit in a spot, and allow Rex Grossman to deliver him the ball. No matter what the coverage scheme is, allowing opposing offenses to complete passes down the field with that much ease is just unacceptable.
- Even when the Patriots applied pressure on Grossman, receivers were so wide open that he could still make throws off his back foot and not risk having the ball intercepted by a Patriots defender. The best example of this was David Anderson's six yard touchdown on the Redskins' first drive of the second half. It was 3rd and goal from the six, the Patriots applied pressure to Grossman, but the Patriots' safeties' (in this case James Ihedigbo), just couldn't stick to Anderson and Grossman was able to throw the ball of his back foot for an easy touchdown.
- More poor safety play: the Brandon Banks to Santana Moss reverse pass touchdown. Sure, it was a trick play, but it not only showed how inexperienced both Matthew Slater and James Ihedigbo are, but also how undisciplined. There's a reason why the Patriots never use their safeties over the top to help Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington - because their safeties simply wouldn't be any help.
- The Patriots running defense was up and down throughout the day. On one play, they would stuff Roy Helu for no gain or a loss, but on the next, they would give up a 15 or 20 yard gain. It seemed, and this is just from my re-watch, that the Redskins had particular success running to the outside, particularly on the left side where the Patriots struggled to set the edge consistently. Up the middle, however, running against Kyle Love, Vince Wilfork, Dane Fletcher, and Jerod Mayo - the Redskins had little success.
- Bottom Line: The Patriots front seven, particularly the defensive line, seems to be playing at a pretty high level. The group is producing pressure, stuffing runs up the middle, and is helping prevent touchdowns once opponents are in the red zone. However, the Patriots' defensive backfield is outright struggling, and the play of the safeties has been particularly alarming. If the Patriots don't improve their safety play soon, I really can't see the team advancing far in the playoffs. While I appreciate the dual role that Matt Slater has taken on, he really just isn't a starting caliber NFL safety. I am eagerly awaiting the return of Pat Chung, who is currently rehabbing from a foot injury, and has not played in five weeks despite being a game time decision nearly each time.