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Let's Fix the Patriots: Defense Edition

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So what's the deal with the Patriots? They're unable to hold leads after halftime and always resort to soft coverage as soon as they gain a lead. In fact, some of the most notable games of the past two seasons have been lost at the hands of soft coverage. The Broncos game in 2009, where the Patriots went prevent defense in the second half. The Colts game in 2009, when the Patriots played soft coverage in the 4th, only to see Peyton Manning pick apart the defense and snatch a victory. The entire Saints game in 2009, where the defense inexplicably gave Drew Brees all the time in the world as the Patriots were blown out.

And most recently, this past week against the Jets, where the Patriots played soft the entire game, just challenging Mark Sanchez to throw the ball- which he gladly did, having a career day.

But there's plenty of things to work with on this defense. How do we fix this young unit, from its inexperienced coach to its inexperienced secondary, and transform them into the reliable unit Patriots fans got used to at the beginning of the millenium?

Find out after the jump!

There are 3 basic units for the defense- Secondary led by coach Josh Boyer, Linebackers with coach Matt Patricia and Defensive Line with Coach Pepper Johnson. So let's see how each unit is doing and how we can fix them.

Starting with the Defensive line:

The defensive line has been the best unit on defense in this early season. Vince Wilfork is still playing at a high level and veteran acquisition Gerard Warren is fitting right in and is looking at having an extremely productive season. Warren started the season at the left defensive end position, replacing the injured Ty Warren, and Mike Wright started as the right defensive end.

I've already harped enough on Mike Wright's skill set not fitting the Patriots 2-gap 3-4 defense for stopping the run, and he's been replaced and relocated to his sub-role, where he is best fit. Against the Jets, the Patriots used Wilfork at his traditional nose tackle position as Warren flipped to the right side and picked up two sacks and had one heck of a game. At left defensive end, the Patriots utilized former Bust-Alert Ron Brace who had the best game of his career against the Jets potent running game. Look for the Patriots to use this formation for the rest of the season.

Brace is the ideal player for the left defensive end spot (excluding Ty Warren, of course), due to his size and his ability to watch two gaps on the line. He lacks the speed to get into the backfield, which is why he won't be a good prospect for the right defensive end (the hunt continues next off-season!), but his strength allows him to open lanes and be a force as a left defensive end.

Wright and Myron Pryor should continue to see playing time as subs, but neither are prototypical 3-4 players and should only come on during sub-packages, or to give the starters some rest. The defensive line has been the best for the defense, and if they play like they did against the Jets, opening lanes for linebackers and collapsing the pocket, the Patriots will continue to generate pressure against the quarterback.

On to the linebacker position:

I gave Tully Banta-Cain a lot of crap this off-season for being overrated since half of his sacks came against an inept Buffalo Bills line last season. I'm going to "nom nom nom" my words right here. Banta-Cain is a great player. Holy cow he's productive. He has a nose for the quarterback, but is also great at stopping the run and breaking up screens. He should continue what he's doing because it's a beautiful thing.

The other side of the ball is a question mark. Rob Ninkovich is the other OLB and he's a sub at best. He was shown trying arm tackles (which sometimes works on special teams, but definitely not on defense) against the Jets and shouldn't continue starting. Of course, due to the Patriots lack of outside linebackers, he might continue to see plenty of time, which isn't a good thing. He can be a productive sub, but not a starter.

Which brings us to Jermaine Cunningham. Cunningham had a very solid day against the Jets and should continue to have success in this defense as his role becomes more and more pronounced. He's a player who is great against the run and is able to get into the opposing backfields. He's still suspect in coverage, but that's to be expected since he was never really expected to do that in college (yes, he did a couple times, but it wasn't his primary role). The more playing time he gets and the more he develops, the stronger the defense will become.

Looking at the inside linebacker spot, there's Jerod Mayo, whose job was watching the running back against the Jets, and Brandon Spikes, who was supposed to be watching the tight end. Gary Guyton is a great sub and young player Dane Fletcher probably won't see the field that much, unless they start teaching him some outside linebacker skills. Mayo and Spikes are solid in the middle, but the defensive game plan against the Jets set them up to fail.

The Jets showed a lot of three receiver sets (with a tight end on the line), with a running back in the back field. This forced the inside linebackers to play a little deeper in order to watch the tight end, only to see the Jets hand the ball off to the running back and gash the defense for a first down. Keep in mind that while it's great to see the defensive lineman come down with the running back, and it's still partially their job, it's really up to the linebackers to watch the gaps and make sure they don't pick up big yardage on the ground. By pushing the linebackers back, the Jets were able to walk all over the Patriots.

Solution: Have Pat Chung help out Brandon Spikes. Sanchez had his way with Spikes since any TE who goes to receive the ball will be creating a mismatch. By pushing Chung over to help Spikes with the Tight End, Mayo can stay a little closer to the line and stop more runs up the middle. Also, Spikes doesn't have to drop as far back because Chung will be there in support. This league is starting to rely on tight ends a lot more on offense, with the emergence of Dallas Clark, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, and younger guys like Keller, Anthony Fasano and even our own Aaron Hernandez because they have advantages over anyone who covers them. By having Chung, tackle specialist, shadow the tight end with Spikes underneath, the tight end won't become as much of a receiving option and, with Spikes again underneath, the run can be stopped more easily.

Finally, the secondary:

What a mess. Darius Butler played like Deltha O'Neal and opposing offenses have been able to get great yardage through the air. Devin McCourty is playing solid defense on the other side of the field, but that could be due to the #1 receiver, often matched up against Butler, always being open. So why not throw to the top target if he's open? The nickel back, Jonathan Wilhite, is still Wilhite. At the safety position, James Sanders has been taking playing time away from "Pro Bowler" Brandon Meriweather. So much for having a breakout season.

So what's the problem?

I believe the issue is with the scheme calling. If the defensive front seven is so able to create pressure on the quarterback, why the heck aren't the defensive backs sticking their receivers? If the quarterback is pressured so much that he has to throw the ball quickly, why isn't the secondary somewhere where they can make a quick play? Giving the receiver some space makes sense if the quarterback...wait, no. It never makes sense, unless the team is up 50 points. In the NFL, every quarterback is able to make a 5 yard throw and if the defensive backs give the receivers plenty of room, that 5 yard throw will be a 15 yard gain.

Let's run this scenario in our head. The front seven is getting to the quarterbacks very quickly. The secondary wants to give the receivers some space so they don't give up the big play if they miss the tackle. But if the quarterback is throwing the ball quickly, why don't the defensive backs get closer to the receivers? They don't have to be right on top, but they should at least be in a position to make a play on the ball. Giving the receivers a 7 yard cushion is asking for trouble.

The corners are athletic enough to be able to run with any receiver. Why not stick them a little closer to the receiver? If the quarterback makes a throw and the corner can make a play, that's a pick 6 every time. At the least, they tackle the receiver for a 2-3 yard gain. What's there to gain by giving the receivers so much space all game? Nothing. And that's all the Patriots have gotten when they utilize a soft coverage scheme.

So here's the solution:

Brace - Wilfork - Warren as the defensive line. They continue to do what they did against the Jets and open up spaces for other players to make plays.

Cunningham - Mayo - Spikes - Banta-Cain as the linebackers. Mayo watches the line and Spikes watches the tight end from underneath. The OLBs continue to generate pressure on the quarterback and assist with screens and off-tackle plays.

Butler - Meriweather - Chung - McCourty as the secondary. Have Chung watch over the tight end and be available to make big plays in the box and around the line of scrimmage. Meriweather at free safety can create problems for opposing quarterbacks on the deep ball as Meriweather is able to make plays that Sanders cannot. Finally, Butler and McCourty need to stop playing soft coverage and play closer to their man. Not so close where they get torched for big plays, but close enough where they can capitalize on quick throws and bad plays that the defensive pressure will create.

This way, there will still be pressure on the quarterback, the tight end will be accounted for and there is less wiggle room for receivers who get large yards after the catch.