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Patriots Midseason Report Card: Defensive Line, Linebackers and Secondary

Patriots Midseason Report Card
Defense: Line, Linebackers and Backs

Offense only does not a perfect season make. Since the dawn of the Bill Belichick Era in New England, defense has been the one constant, the hallmark, of these Patriot teams.

In past years, with the lack of a high level of raw talent in many offensive skill positions and along the offensive line, the defense often was the unit that kept games close, that led New England to wins.

Things have changed somewhat. The offense is pretty self-sufficient. Sometimes, having an offense so efficient poses different problems to a team's own defense -- giving the opponent more offensive opportunities, for example.

That hasn't changed the mission of the defense. Or its performance.

Overall Defense: A

For a defense that started the season with two major pieces missing -- defensive end Richard Seymour and safety Rodney Harrison -- the overall defense has been exceptional; but lacking those pieces, there were some lapses, even as there have been since they've returned. In the greater scheme, those lapses have been almost wholly insignificant.

Still, there were two wins -- Dallas and Indianapolis -- where the defense accomplished as much as the offense, maybe more.

As for those lapses, most have come late in the game, the Patriots comfortably ahead, sometimes with starters on the sidelines. Here's a look at the opponents' scores by quarter:

Team 1st 2nd 3rd 4th
Jets 0 7 7 0
Chargers 0 0 7 7
Bills 7 0 0 0
Bengals 0 7 3 3
Browns 0 0 3 14
Cowboys 0 10 7 3
Dolphins 0 7 0 14
Redskins 0 0 0 7
Colts 3 10 0 7
Totals 10 41 27 55

With the exception of Dallas and Indy, the Patriots defense have not given up more than a touchdown in the first half of any game and three times have pitched a 30-minute shutout. Only twice have they given up any points at all in the first quarter. Taken half-by-half, New England's D has given up 51 points and 82 points; they've allowed just 78 in the first three quarters of all games combined.

Defensive Line: A

Without Seymour for essentially the first eight games (he played sporadically against Washington had didn't make the stat sheet), the defensive line was less effective against the run, allowing 4.2 yard per carry, than perhaps otherwise. Weren't they?

Look at opponents' yards-per-carry numbers in the first half: Jets, 1.8; Chargers, 3.3; Bills, 3.1; Bengals, 3.3; Browns, 4.5; Cowboys, 4.0; Dolphins, 5.0; Redskins, 3.6; Colts, 4.7. Sure, there are a few games that opponents ran the ball, but for the most part, the line left most teams with no place to run early in the game, and a lot of the rushing yards were, effectively, "Bledsoe stats": you know, lots of nice-looking numbers, sometimes against scrubs, that don't really matter much.

If the rushing defense was "weak" against expectations -- and I don't think it was really -- the passing offense was more impressive than it has been in the past, allowing a cumulative passer rating of 73.9. As much as that is the result of linebacker play (and we'll get to them shortly) and defensive backs, it all starts with the D line.

Vince Wilfork: A

Perhaps the best interior lineman in the league, Wilfork is the definition of the "immovable object" -- except when he moves himself. Wilfork owns the line of scrimmage, and in the absence of Seymour, he's the guy offenses double up.

Much like Seymour in past years, Wilfork's impact doesn't show up explicitly on the stat sheet (25 tackles, 1 sack). No, other guys get stats because of Wilfork's impact. So guys like Ty Warren, Jarvis Green, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Adalius Thomas make plays in the opponents' backfields, but Wilfork often is in the screen's frame very near the play.

Ty Warren: B+

The Patriots rewarded Warren in August with a contract extension. Still under contract for another 2 years at just over $1 million a year, New England extended Warren 5 more years worth $35 million, $18 million guaranteed.

Very quietly, Wilfork has proved the investment worth it. He leads all defensive linemen in total tackles (28) and solo tackles (20) to go with more than half a dozen quarterback hits, a pair of sacks and three fumble recoveries. Warren and Wilfork epitomize the "team first" attitude. They're not particularly flashy, and they don't cry about not getting stats. They do their jobs, they do what's necessary for the team to win.

Jarvis Green: A+

Green came out strong, making 6 tackles and registering 2 sacks in Week 1 against the Jets. Maybe teams were more concerned with Wilfork and Warren to pay much attention to Seymour's backup, but Green showed why he could start on most other teams. He might even be a Pro Bowl selection in another situation.

Green leads linemen in sacks with 4.0, plus 9 additional quarterback hits (3 on Peyton Manning in Week 9) and a forced fumble.

Richard Seymour: C+ / I

Seymour has played barely a game and a half, but his impact is obvious. In Week 9 against Indy, Seymour's presence freed up Warren a little more, and Warren led the Patriots with 5 solo tackles, 7 total. Still, Seymour is just average, compared to himself, but he improved from Week 8 to Week 9, so he gets the "+". Otherwise, for missing half the season, he gets the "incomplete."

Mike Wright: C

Wright gets the job done. He also contributes on special teams coverage units. That's what you need from him. That's what he gives you.

Linebackers: A

Patriots detractors quickly reference the Patriots "aging linebacker corps," even when this unit has proven otherwise. New England's linebackers are four of the top six tacklers on the team. They account for nearly half of the team's interceptions (5 of 12) and more than half of the sacks (14 of 25) and forced fumbles (7 of 12).

The linebackers' abilities, especially with the addition of Adalius Thomas, are as much responsible for the Patriots' top-notch pass defense as anyone, and New England has played some of the top passing offenses in the league in Dallas, Cincinnati, Indy and Cleveland.

Mike Vrabel: A+

Vrabel is having a Pro Bowl year, but don't expect him to make that team. Even Tedy Bruschi leads him in fan voting. More about that after this weekend's game.

Vrabel is tied for 4th in the league with 8.5 sacks, tied for 3rd with 4 forced fumbles. He leads New England with 34 solo tackles and ranks second in total tackles with 47. "Aging linebackers." Hah!

Don't forget that receiving touchdown and the several plays he's come in at fullback. Vrabel does everything, and everything he does, he does well.

Tedy Brushci: A

They said he was all done. Possibly a coin flip from deciding to retire after last season, Brucshi had lost a step -- so they said. He's 34. He's getting old.

Bruschi leads the team in tackles with 52 and he trails Vrabel in solo tackles by 1. He has a pair of sacks.

Bruschi still plays with a passion, a smoldering fire seldom matched by other players. He is a leader on and off the field. His gutty effort raises his grade much the way it raises the spirit of his teammates and the level of their play.

Junior Seau: A

Like Bruschi, Seau plays younger than his age, which in Seau's case is 38 (39 in January). He's another leader on a team loaded with them. He was all done, too, after breaking his forearm last season and "waving goodbye" to the fans at Gillette Stadium. He'd be old and slow if he played at all, they said.

Not so. Seau is 6th on the team in tackles, and for a while he led the team in interceptions. Now he's second, one behind Asante Samuel's team-leading 4. Seau also has a sack. He plays the run, and he still drops back into coverage. He might be a "backup," but what team wouldn't want to have a backup like Seau?

Rosevelt Colvin: B-

Colvin is another resurrected player. In one of his first games as a Patriot in 2003, he dislocated his hip. If he ever played again, he'd never be the player he had been. They didn't quite get that one right, either.

Colvin hasn't exactly dominated the stat sheet, but not everyone can. Still, he's shown a ball hawkishness that remains tops in the league. With "just" 22 total tackles, Colvin also has 3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and an interception.

Adalius Thomas: B+

The "steal" of 2007's free agency, Thomas early lived up to the hype, but he was slowed by an ankle injured during Week 5's contest against Cleveland. He's still tackling, but his pass defense is not what it was in September.

Thomas's name has been little heard, but he's still very prevalent on the Patriots defense, despite little time against the Colts. Thomas is 4th on the team with 40 total tackles, 5th with 28 solo. He has 5 passes defended, but none since the Cleveland game, and he has a 65-yard interception return against San Diego.

Thomas also had several tackles of running backs for losses early in the season. He has just half a sack, also before the Cleveland game.

Defensive Backs: B

James Sanders: A-

For a guy who even most Patriots fans didn't (and still hardly) know, Sanders has been a nameless stalwart in the secondary, especially impressive as he started in place of Rodney Harrison, who missed 4 games due to suspension.

Sanders is not a flashy playmaker, but he's the prototypical Patriot in that he just goes out and does his job. You don't hear much about Sanders missing tackles or giving up big pass plays. He has no passes defended, no interceptions, no forced fumbles. What he has are tackles. Lots of them. Sanders is 3rd on the team with 41 tackles, 29 solo (4th).

Eugene Wilson: C-

Wilson is solid when he plays, but that's just not often enough. Wilson has been nagged by repeated injuries, and he's played in just 7 games this season, starting only 5. In fact, Wilson barely has in his 7 games this season (28 tackles, 2 passes defended) the statistics he had in 4 games in 2006 (24, 2). What is good is that of his 28 tackles this season is that 25 of them are solo, showing he plays well in the open field and he's been working on tackling instead of hitting.

Rodney Harrison: A / F(I)

Harrison gets an "A" for the games in which he's played and an "F (incomplete)" for the four games he missed due to his suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

In the 5 games he's played (4 really, he hardly played against Cleveland), he has 20 tackles (15 solo). If the ball gets beyond the line of scrimmage, Harrison usually isn't too far away -- pretty impressive for a 34-year-old. Harrison also has 2.0 sacks, 4 passes defended, an interception and a forced fumble.

Harrison drew the assignment to cover Indy tight end Dallas Clark in Week 9. Clark had torched the Patriots in the second half of the AFC Championship last winter. Harrison shut down Clark, who had just 2 receptions for 15 yards in the recent Patriots win.

Brandon Meriweather: C

With Harrison out for the first four games, Meriweather seemed his heir apparent. He had 13 tackles (4 on special teams) in those games. He's had just 1 since (and on special teams). Had Asante Samuel held out until Week 10, we might know more about Meriweather. While it's not unusual for Patriots rookies to have little impact their first season, Meriweather has not lived up to his preseason promise.

Asante Samuel: A

Samuel is who we thought he was. I thought it was imperative for the Patriots to sign Samuel, and it's a good thing they did. Keeping him after this season will be a challenge. Samuel covers the biggest name receivers in the league, and he keeps them in check. Can you name a receiver who's torched New England this year?

Samuel doesn't have a lot of tackles, but he leads the team with 4 interceptions and 12 passes defended. That 12 is more than double anyone else on the team and is just 2 short of his career best with 7 games to play.

Ellis Hobbs: C+ / A+

Hobbs is an average defender, and he's played at that level this season. Hobbs is 3rd on the team in solo tackles with 30 (37 total). Part of that is opposing offenses picking on him because they have better chances against him than against Samuel. He does have a tendency to give up occasional big plays, and he's not the best tackler, despite the raw numbers. Hobbs has 5 passes defended, a sack and a forced fumble.

Hobbs's A+ is for his work as a return man, which I'll go into in the final report card.

Randall Gay: B

Gay has been solid and dependable. He's played smart and he's generally where he needs to be. His forced fumble and return for a touchdown against Miami was an excellent capsule of his talents. He's in the top 10 on the team in tackles, and he has a pair of picks.