We're six weeks into the 2012 NFL Season, and we're almost at the point where what we see is what we're going to get going forward. And so far, none of us are too fond of what we have been seeing out of the Patriots defense. Even in wins, the D gives up a ton of yards, allows too many big plays, and lives and dies off of turnovers as opposed to solid fundamentals and stopping opposing drives.
On the flip side, the offense looks, for the most part, fantastic. The hurry up is effective, the run game is sound, and Tom Brady has more weapons than he has ever had before. At the same time, though, this unit has had a lot of trouble closing out games, and has failed to convert those one or two first downs that would have sealed the victory.
One thing we spoiled, obnoxious, whiny Patriots fans like to do is panic, overreact, and start pointing fingers at everyone as to why our team isn't undefeated with zero points against whenever things don't go well. It's not a horrible problem to have when your team is so consistently good a couple bad games is a cause for panic, and so I'm jumping into the madness with both feet.
So who is more to blame for the Patriots' recent struggles: the offense or the defense? I figure using a point/counterpoint would be the most effective method going forward here.
Point: The fact of the matter is that, while this defense is giving up huge chunks of yards and allowing teams to score at will at times, they are also creating key turnovers and making the crucial plays to give the offense opportunities to ice the game. They forced a fumble against Arizona and three and outs against Baltimore and Seattle when they needed to. The offense didn't take advantage of any of those opportunities and the team lost as a result.
Counterpoint: The offense is building multiple score leads. It's on the defense to protect those leads. Most teams that have a two score lead late in the 4th quarter have enough defensive ability to make sure that the win is secured, be it through forcing a turnover or making opposing offenses earn every yard they get by taking time off the clock. The fact that the Patriots can easily give up a lot of points very quickly if the offense runs the ball to force opponents to use timeouts means that no lead is safe and the offense has to put the game well out of reach by the end of the 3rd. That's a very tall order.
Point: The offense was in position to close out and/or win each game the team has lost so far late. They haven't gotten it done. That killer instinct just isn't there.
Counterpoint: Momentum is a huge factor in football games. Which team currently has the momentum is about as obvious as it gets. One thing this defense consistently does is give other teams a ton of momentum by giving up a big play or a quick score to keep them in it. So while it isn't too much to ask the Patriots offense to manufacture first downs in order to keep the opposing offense off the field, giving Tom Brady the ball when a huge play or scoring drive has fired up the defense and the home crowd to a near frenzy means there is a little more to it than simply not having that killer instinct anymore.
Point: This is no longer a talent issue. This is a coaching issue. New England hasn't had a decent cornerback since Asante Samuel and the corners they have been drafting out of college are good players. Something happens to them in the Patriots system that causes them to struggle. Bill Belichick needs to figure out what is going on there, and he needs to figure it out now.
Counterpoint: And how many of those failed New England corners have gone on to find success elsewhere? None. The truth is that there are really only a handful of really good corners in the league, and DB more than anywhere else is a crapshoot position to draft. Belichick knows this, and so he plays the odds by drafting a lot of them. You can't constantly throw the Terrence Wheatley card when talking about this secondary, because none of those guys have had any luck elsewhere. I'd argue that most cornerbacks can't hack it in the NFL; that's just the way it is.
Point: This defense is still better than it was last year. The pass rush, while not overwhelming, is there, and the turnover differential speaks for itself. Injuries at some key positions have left them thin, and when players like Hightower and Gregory return, it should be a huge boost.
Counterpoint: As frustrating as the "bend but don't break" defense of 2011 was, at least it made their opponents score their points slowly and stiffened up in the red zone. The 2012 defense gives up yards and points in droves, and very quickly. It honestly doesn't matter what your offense does when the same plays we all ran in the schoolyard work to perfection against this secondary. Yes, they create turnovers, but I'd honestly rather them force drives to stall on a consistent basis. And getting Hightower and Gregory back might help, but Gregory was losing snaps to Wilson anyway, and the front seven is still playing well.
What do you think is the bigger issue - this team's defensive struggles, or the offense's inability to close out games?