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Lightning Strikes

The Patriots can't stop the big play. How do they stop the bleeding?

Stephen Brashear - Getty Images

It's time for this to happen.

Actually, it's been time since the beginning of last season.

Since the start of the 2011 NFL season, the Patriots have allowed a league worst 112 passing plays for 20+ yards in the regular season. That's a pace of just over 5 big plays through the air every game- and that's unacceptable.

To put this in context, the Patriots also lead the league over the same period of time with 100 of their own passes of 20+ yards.

Now let's step back and capture what this implies. To put it plainly, it means that the vaunted Patriots offense is not as explosive as how the Patriots defense makes opposing teams look. Opposing quarterbacks have had more big passing plays against the Patriots defense than Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Deion Branch, Brandon Lloyd and everyone else on the offense.

Please justify that to me.

The Patriots haven't consistently played teams fielding talent anywhere in the same stratosphere as what New England possesses. It's just that no matter who the Patriots play, they just can't stop the big play.
And as much as it hurts, those big plays always seem to come at the worst possible time.

Is it scheme? I think a little. Having defensive backs playing zone when opposing teams are sprinting down the field will lead to miscommunications and open receivers. That's part of the chess match. When your pass rush isn't as effective as you would hope, that allows the quarterback to have plenty of time to open up the field.

Is it the coaches? Yeah. Some of the players are on the field when they shouldn't and the coaches seem to ride them until it's too late. There's no reason to have rookie Nate Ebner on the field at a crucial drive, across from rookie Tavon Wilson, when plenty of cornerbacks could play the safety spot better (Devin McCourty could have slid over after Pat Chung was injured. Sterling Moore could have stepped in. Kyle Arrington. Anyone other than Ebner.) and when Ebner was getting benched for his poor special teams play, never mind his defensive "savvy."

So is it the personnel? Absolutely. It's not that I don't believe in this unit; in fact, I feel like I have more faith in this squad that most other people. I just believe that the players are being mismanaged based upon the injuries sustained and the players remaining.

I believe in Devin McCourty and Alfonzo Dennard at corner. Both looked very good on Sunday, apart from the deep bomb on McCourty where he was in position. They both show the ability to be in the area of the ball, but they need to start making the plays happen.

I believe in Pat Chung as an in-the-box safety, as he has no over-the-top coverage ability. The Patriots have been mismanaging him this year as they've had no faith in the RCB, forcing Chung to try- and not succeed- at helping out. They're taking away his strengths and he's coming across as below average.

I believe in Tavon Wilson being a great James Sanders-esque player, who isn't really a free safety, but keep him within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage and he will make plays happen. Forcing him to play deep, just like forcing Pat Chung, is a mistake.

I believe in Kyle Arrington when he keeps players in front of him; he's just possibly the worst corner on the team when the ball gets behind him. He's perfect for the small slot receivers who stay in the box because he can shadow them and make plays. As soon as they start streaking up the field? Nothing good happens.

I believe in Sterling Moore as a playmaker, but less as a coverage player. He has a knack for making big plays happen, but he is extremely raw when it comes to his technique. Perhaps he could do with a change of scenery.

I believe in Steve Gregory as a valuable rotational player, as he hasn't really had the chance to prove himself. While Dennard has been positive in both of his outings, Gregory was more of a roller coaster when he was on the field. I still think he can prove himself when healthy.

I believe in Ras-I Dowling as an outside corner because there's literally nothing he's done on the field that shows he should have fallen behind Sterling Moore on the depth chart. He has the size and strength the Patriots need and whenever he's taken the field, he's played as well as anyone could hope.

Those are the main players in the secondary and I believe the deck needs to be shuffled a little bit to take advantage of every player's strengths.

First, McCourty, Dennard, and Dowling should take top billing as the starting outside corners. Arrington and Moore struggle moving backwards and shouldn't be put in an opportunity to get burned.

Chung needs to be put back in a place where he can succeed, so he needs to be paired, situationally, with a safety who can complement his skill set.

Why not Arrington or Moore? In the base defense, have Dennard and McCourty at corner, with Chung at strong safety and Arrington/Moore at free safety. Arrington playing deep allows him to keep opposing players in front of him- and he definitely can pitch in with the run defense. Moore can make plays and what better spot allows that than free safety? If they can roam the field- and while they struggle in coverage, they can do a better job than Chung, Wilson, or Ebner- Chung will be able to step up in the box and play his own game that makes him successful.

When the team plays five defensive backs in the nickel package, Arrington can step up to be the slot corners- and depending on the opposing personnel, Moore can stay on as the deep free safety, or Wilson can come on the field if the opposition has smaller personnel.

Teams are willing and currently able to take advantage of the Patriots weakness on the deep ball, and with teams having so many weapons able to become that threat down the field- whether it's a slot receiver or a tight end- coverage ability is even more imperative to the team's success. Having a pair of safeties as liabilities to the deep ball benefits only the opposing quarterbacks.

That's going to continue until there's a change.

The Patriots have a penchant for forcing players into a scheme, to the detriment of their overall ability. That's just the Patriot way and it's as much the cause for the team's success over the past decade as it has been for the failures. The team is able to win year in and year out because the loss of no single player can derail the team (barring Brady, but counterpoint: 2008).

Last season, they tried to force Chad Ochocinco into a system that didn't complement his skill set and he completely failed. Adalius Thomas, Brandon Tate, Tully Banta-Cain, and plenty of players over the years couldn't fit into their roles because they were square pegging their position's circle holes (and note how poorly those two specific positional groups have developed over the years). They were players who could succeed if the system was modified and molded to fit them, but that's not the Patriot way- no one player should dictate the team's direction.

And to be fair, I still believe in that concept. No one player should change how the team plays. However, there is a point where the team can't play with its current players and I think we've reached that point with the secondary. As they stand, they cannot be relied upon with the game on the line.

Sure, the offense could do a lot more for the first 58 minutes of the game to not put the defense in the position to lose in the last couple of minutes- but the defense should be dependable enough to not give up a lightning strike to cost the team the game- and when lightning strikes the same place as much as it has the last two seasons, you have to start thinking it might just be a problem with the electrical wiring.

The Patriots won't be able to take a breather as they face the New York Jets next week with the divisional lead on the line and then skip over the pond to London to close out the first half of the season. These weeks are as good as any to try out new defensive packages as both teams have been wrecked with receiver injuries.

Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't- they'll have the bye week for further adjustment.

But not doing anything is possibly the most dangerous course for this secondary.