For my money, there aren't many football plays more exciting than when your team makes a key interception. Sacks are always fun to watch, and beautiful touchdown passes or runs are what make up the most SportsCenter highlights, but in my opinion nothing gets me fired up quite like a well-played pick that completely stalls an opposing offensive drive and puts your team in great field position with the opportunity to score. Maybe it's because you never quite know when to expect them. Maybe it's because the amount of skill and athleticism required to be an NFL defensive back defies my severely limited imagination, Maybe it's because the team that wins the turnover battle usually wins the game. Whatever it is, you can count me among those who cheer loudest and most obnoxiously when the New England Patriots record an INT.
Last year, the Patriots racked up 23 interceptions, tied for second in the NFL with the San Fransisco 49ers and behind only the Green Bay Packers' 30. While some might find it ironic that the league's two worst defenses had the league's two highest interception totals, to me it makes total sense. When you have offenses as potent as New England's and Green Bay's, opposing teams are going to be throwing the ball more as they play from behind. Plus, both the Patriots and the Packers simply couldn't get off the field on 3rd down, which meant that they were on the field a lot longer than other defenses. Both lead to more opportunities for picks, and both teams were able to capitalize on the chances they were given.
While I'd like to think that New England's defense will be on the field significantly less this coming season, thus diminishing the number of opportunities the secondary will get to make plays, you still have to take into account.the amount of talent the team has defensively, as well as where the strengths of their upcoming opponents lies. That's why I'm putting the over/under on team interceptions for 2012 at 20.
Why you should bet the over: New England has made a concerted effort this offseason to plug in some of the holes in the secondary and put their players in the best possible position to be successful. While they currently don't have a stud at safety to start alongside Pat Chung, there are enough pieces in place with Steve Gregory and Josh Barrett, both of whom have been having good camps (Gregory in particular) to ensure that the position isn't going to be a liability, with the potential to be one of the team's stronger units should Tavon Wilson prove himself worthy of that 2nd round pick. Devin McCourty, while not back to his rookie self just yet, has looked good in training camp and the shoulder injury that was hampering him all last year is back to 100%. Ras-I Dowling has been having a fantastic camp, and his presence allows Kyle Arrington to move back to the slot where he is more comfortable. Add to the mix Will Allen, Sterling Moore, and wild card Alfonzo Dennard, and there is plenty of talent on this team to improve on their 23 picks last year. Plus, if all goes well and this team lives up to the borderline ridiculous expectations that everyone seems to have about them, the Patriots will be scoring a lot of points, forcing opponents to throw more as they play from behind, and the more a quarterback throws, the more likely he is to get picked off. If Belichick still decides to employ that absolutely maddening, yet oddly effective, "bend but don't break" approach to his defensive game planning, there will be plenty of opportunity for picks. Much will depend on the pass rush, as no secondary can cover for six or seven seconds, but there is a lot to like about this unit going forward.
Why you should bet the under: Of all the Patriots' interceptions last year, there was a decent handful that came off of deflections and tipped balls as opposed to the defender making plays and getting in front of the receiver. While being in the right place at the right time is very much a part of being an effective defensive player, I would have liked to see more aggressiveness from the corners and safeties last year when it came to making turnovers happen, and there's no guarantee that the Pats get those bounces again this year. It's also worth noting that we still don't really know what this unit will look like once the season starts; McCourty will hopefully bounce back to 2010 form, but that is by no means a guarantee. Dowling looks great now, but he hasn't had to make a tackle yet and he has an injury history. I'm optimistic about rookies Wilson and Dennard, but cautiously so. Like I said above, an improved pass rush will certainly help the defensive backs, but as of right now there is no one spot in the secondary other than Chung where I feel 100% confident that we have the answer. While those questions will all be answered come September, it's a little early in the year to start predicting 20 plus picks. And since everyone, much to my chagrin, insists on comparing this team to the 2007 unit (which had 19 picks), under 20 might be the safe bet.
So what will it be? More or less than 20 picks for the Patriots this year?