The Patriots offense is firing on all cylinders and critics are saving all of their negativity for the Patriots' defense. While the defense has been underwhelming late in games, they finally put together a full game this past week. In honor of that fine performance, I've come up with a list of the top 5 playmakers on this young Patriots' defense.
A playmaker is someone who not only makes plays happen, but they're able to make plays on their own. There are plenty of players on the team who do their job well; then there are some players who not only do their job, but they help other players do their jobs better. These players have been making plays as this defense has been turning around (sorry Mike Wright, Pat Chung, Rob Ninkovich and Tully Banta-Cain) and show no signs of slowing down. Here's the list!
5. Jermaine Cunningham - Cunningham is only a rookie, but he's emerged as a guy who always makes things happen at the right time. He generates pressure to force terrible quarterback throws and has iced two games with his pressure- first against the Bills when he caused two interceptions at the end of the game to prevent the Bills from matching the Patriots' offense and more recently against the Colts when he hit Peyton Manning's side to cause an interception to end a game tying/winning drive. He's grown as a player all season, having started the season as a pure 3-4 Elephant OLB who had his hand on the ground and now having evolved into an all around OLB who is being asked to drop into coverage. He's maturing as a player and continues to be the only defensive player to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback. With 5 tackles for loss and 2 forced fumbles, Cunningham makes things happen.
4. Vince Wilfork - Of course Wilfork makes the list. He doesn't post sack numbers, but he has 4 tackles for loss and he faces constant double teams. He's able to dictate where opposing teams run the football- if he lines up at defensive end, teams run to the other side- and he commands double teams to open up lanes for other players. He creates holes for rookie Brandon Spikes to spy the running back and allows Spikes to make great tackles close to the line of scrimmage. He's on pace to post the most solo tackles of his career and is in line to have his second most prolific tackling season (the highest being 2008). He causes trouble whenever he steps on the field and has shown no drop since he received his shiny new contract.
See the other playmakers after the jump!
3. Jerod Mayo - Mayo has regained and surpassed his rookie season form. He finally has a solid linebacker next to him, which allows him to make more plays on defense. A lot of critics have said that Mayo is overrated and that his tackle numbers are inflated by jumping on players who are already on their way down and that he makes the tackle after the other team has already made the play. Yes, his numbers are high as he leads the league with 144 tackles (17 more than the second place defender) and, yes, he has 11 more assisted tackles than the next guy. However, it's also true that he has 6 more solo tackles than the next player- which means that he's still making a lot of plays on his own. Some will compare the tackles for loss numbers and say that there are other linebackers who have many more than Mayo. That's true, but those players are playing the 4-3 defense, which allows for a lot more interior penetration by the MLBs. In the 3-4 defense, ILBs get into the backfield much fewer. Ray Lewis has 2 TFL, Patrick Willis has 3 TFL, David Harris has 3 TFL and James Farrior has 3 TFL. Jerod Mayo is sitting pretty with 2 TFL. He's making just as many plays as the other inside linebackers and he's starting to improve his coverage skills. He doesn't miss tackles and he doesn't give up big plays- and he makes plays everywhere.
2. James Sanders - Last season, Sanders was supplanted by Brandon McGowan as starting safety on the Patriots defense. Sanders rode the pine for more of the season, until McGowan started to slip as a cover safety and Sanders regained his starting position. Sanders wasn't spectacular, but he did enough to earn a starting spot and played well enough. I believe this is happening again. This season, Sanders was passed by sophomore Pat Chung due to poor tackling and performances, as well as the high level of play by Chung. Well, Sanders has fixed his tackling issues from early in the season and Chung has shown weakness in covering receivers down the field. Sanders has interceptions in three out of the past four games, while Chung has seen his role diminish in recent weeks. Sanders has continued to not just make solid fundamental plays with his tackling, but he also seems to be in the right spot to take advantage of a poor play by the opposition.
Sanders has shaken off a poor early season and is heating up at the right team. He's a solid team player and locker room guy and is now playing at a high level on the field.
1. Devin McCourty - McCourty is now one of the best cornerbacks in the league. He's not yet at the level of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Flowers or Champ Bailey, but he's definitely reached the tier right below. He has a pass defended in the past eight Patriots victories. Yeah, he missed a pretty big tackle on Braylon Edwards as he was shaken off. Other than that, the Jets avoided throwing in his direction. In fact. most quarterbacks have stopped throwing to him. He's strong in run support and is generally a fantastic tackler. He has a nose for the ball and he allows safeties to go to the other side of the field and help out the other corner, making it even harder to pass against the Patriots defense.
I hear what you're saying- it's not hard to pass against the Patriots defense. Well, that may be a little true. Keep in mind that McCourty is doing his job by shutting down his receiver, while the slot receiver is picking up all the yards in 5-15 yard pick-ups. Receivers like Santonio Holmes get to face off against Kyle Arrington, with safety help (this time it was James Sanders), who, while improved, is no where near the cornerback that McCourty is. McCourty has locked down the #2 receiver, usually on an island, and has prevented most big plays. Here's the past four games where we've seen McCourty grow up as a player:
Steelers: Emmanuel Sanders; 5/9 for 41 yards and a TD, 1 PD (Hines Ward was out with an injury)
Colts: Pierre Garcon; 5/9 for 62 yards, 2 PDs, 1 INT
Lions: Nate Burleson; 3/8 for 35 yards, 2 PDs, 2 INTs
Jets: Braylon Edwards; 2/7 for 39 yards, 1 PD, 1 INT
McCourty is getting his hand on the ball and he's making it more difficult for opposing quarterbacks to reach their targeted receiver. Sure, his receivers are being thrown at (and even that number is decreasing), but the quarterbacks are completing even fewer. He's growing up and it's a beautiful sight to see.
As long as these five players, McCourty, Sanders, Mayo, Wilfork and Cunningham, keep playing at a high level, this defense has a chance to surprise critics. They're making the players around them better and they're responsible for making plays on defense. There are other players who had been playing well, but have been quiet lately due to injury or some other reason, like Pat Chung and Mike Wright, and if those players re-find their game, this defense can become ferocious.
I'm excited to see these players excel for the rest of the season.