The most interesting storyline for me when it comes to the 2010 New England Patriots is how the defense develops in year two of the rebuild. 2009 was year zero of the Belichick Patriots Defense version 2.0, and now in the second season we've started to see some interesting trends emerging as the coaching staff gets to know their new players better and better.
With a hat tip to Mike Reiss we break down the snaps played for each defensive player and try to read the tea leaves as to what it all means after the jump...
The first place to start is here where I've tallied up the snaps played this season based on Mike Reiss' numbers (small margin for error). Here are the trends and observations that stuck out the most, some are obvious, some less so...
Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Jerod Mayo are our best players, playing an average of 98% of the defensive snaps in 2010. Every week it seems like McCourty gets better and it saddens me to think how this team would look if it was Leigh Bodden lining up at the other corner spot. Mayo looks like he has returned to the level he established his rookie year, while Chung is having the breakout season many of us thought he would.
Though he hasn't been used as an every down linebacker Tully Banta-Cain remains one of the most vital pieces of the puzzle (4th overall with 83% snaps played). Jermaine Cunningham has gradually gotten more snaps as the season progressed (26, 23, 28, 53) and that has eaten into TBC's time on the field. Whether that's an indication that Cunningham is surpassing TBC, or they're just trying to keep TBC fresh for pass rushing duties remains to be seen.
Brandon Spikes and Gary Guyton are dividing run downs and passing downs respectfully. It's interesting to see how much less playing time Guyton is getting this year than last year. Clearly Guyton was out of place as a base 34 Mike linebacker. His best place is in pass coverage with occasional blitzing, and even then he can be suspect sometimes. He's one player who needs to show some improvement, especially with so many talented pass-catching tight ends and running backs on the upcoming schedule.
James Sanders was the number one trade bait guy mentioned in training camp, but so far he's played nearly 75% of the snaps. Brandon Meriweather appeared to retake the starting 34 free safety spot against Miami before getting dinged, look for his percentages to climb from 7th overall in the coming weeks. Assuming he can continue to avoid "freelancing".
Ron Brace was slowly building his number of snaps player per game for the first three weeks of the season (18, 46, 25) before seeing only one snap against the Dolphins. It's hard to know if this is a reflection of wanting to get Brandon Deaderick some playing time, or if Brace started regressing against the Bills. His playing time against the Ravens will be something to monitor.
Jarrad Page is another player who has been slowly playing more and more with each game, though the Miami numbers are skewed by the loss of Brandon Meriweather. It will be interesting to see whether it's Sanders or Meriweather whose playing time gets taken away as Page improves.
Like Spikes and Guyton, Myron Pryor and Gerard Warren seem to be splitting pass downs and run downs. When it comes to pass rush Pryor is one player who really needs to start producing. Pass rush isn't just about the linebackers, it's about the interior rushers (Pryor, Mike Wright). Wright has played 51% of the snaps and produced just one sack and four tackles. My pass rush concerns focus on Wright and Pryor moreso than Banta-Cain, Cunningham or Ninkovich. Wright is used in all nearly all passing situations, he needs to start getting to the QB.
Vince Wilfork has to be considered one of the defensive MVPs though he's only playing 68% of the snaps (which is still pretty impressive for a guy once considered one-dimensional). Wilfork can play any position on the defensive line, and teams generally run away from him giving the Patriots an advantage.
Kyle Arrington has gone from just 8 snaps total in the first two games to 86% of the snaps in the last two games. Whether he holds onto the top RCB spot over Darius Butler will be an area to monitor. Butler played in 92% of the snaps in the first two games, but just 14% of the snaps in the last two.
In the big picture it's clear that some roles have been locked down, but the coaches are still experimenting in other areas. Against Baltimore we should get a clearer picture of what the Patriots self-scouting revealed to them. It should be an interesting game to see how this defense will continue to evolve and take shape.