I'll open up by saying, "Yes, I know the Patriots were playing the Cardinals." I'll further clarify with a, "but this is the defense that gave up over 340 yards to quarterbacks like Jason Campbell and Dan Orlovsky in 2011." Any time this New England Patriots defense shows improvement against any opponent is a win for this franchise and I will be thrilled to point out that they shut down Kevin Kolb.
Actually, reading that made me a little nauseous, but we'll have to roll with the punches and take whatever positives we can get- and this defense has definitely been a huge positive so far this season.
I believe there are two main reasons why the Patriots defense has looked so stellar- outstanding linebacker play and improvements at the safety position. Sure, having rookie Chandler Jones barreling around the corner every snap is a bonus, but the the real improvements come with the elevated ability of the those playing in the center of the Patriots defense.
Last season, the Patriots linebackers were abysmal in coverage and the safeties were nonexistent. Jerod Mayo allowed 9.7 yards/completion, with 6.75 YAC on average. Whoever ended up playing next to him (a mixture of Gary Guyton, Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, and Tracy White) played even worse in coverage than Mayo. Watching the tape, it seemed as if the linebackers didn't know their roles while dropping into coverage and, with a shortened off-season, who could blame them? They would often drop back into their zone with no feel for the receiver crossing behind them and would surrender larger chunks of yardage underneath.
The safeties provided a carousel of "coverage" as different players each week took the field to provide sub-par support in the backfield. The consistency provided thus far by Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson, opposite of Pat Chung, has transformed the secondary into a reliable unit that can be trusted not to give away the game. To Kevin Kolb. Ugh.
The addition of Dont'a Hightower to the linebacker corps and Gregory and Wilson to the safety spot has solidified the defense and elevated its play. So lets take a look at how these improvements have taken to the field after the jump.
This play helps open up the second quarter of the game. The New England Patriots offense has sputtered so far and the defense has played a huge role in keeping the team in in the game.
The personnel on the field (near side of the screen to the far side):
Rob Ninkovich - Vince Wilfork - Kyle Love - Chandler Jones
Jerod Mayo - Dont'a Hightower
Devin McCourty - Kyle Arrington - Sterling Moore
Steve Gregory (out of the picture) - Pat Chung
While there is a typical rotation on defense where Brandon Spikes could come on for Hightower, Tavon Wilson could step on for Gregory, or Ras-I Dowling could play instead of Moore, the players on the field are the typical defense for the Patriots.
Devin McCourty is lined up on the near side of the screen across from Larry Fitzgerald. Arrington is in the slot, Gregory is playing centerfield, and Chung is starting to backpedal. On a second and 14, the Patriots defense is reading "pass" and they want to prevent a play to ensure a third and long possession for the Cardinals.
The ball is snapped and, in 2.45 seconds according to my stop watch, Kolb resorts to checking down to the open Ryan Williams in open field about three yards beyond the line of scrimmage. However, he is quickly tackled after a seven yard gain by Vince Wilfork (yes, the one hovering around the LoS), with Mayo and Hightower in tackle support.
In 2.5 seconds, Ninkovich is able to turn the corner to put pressure on Kolb to make a quick play. Kyle Love and Wilfork stack each other at the line, as both a capable nose tackles able to man a couple gaps. Love starts to push the line to generate pressure up the gut and Wilfork stands at the point in case Kolb scrambles. Jones is reaching for Kolb's jersey around the blind side.
But it wasn't just the pressure that forced Kolb to check down- it was the stellar coverage down the field. Let's take a look at the coaches tape to see how the Patriots defense has grown.
Here's a different angle of the snap. Steve Gregory is now in focus and is patrolling the first down marker. You can see the routes for each player- the Cardinals are looking to move the ball down the field, while their slot receiver is clearly the first target, running a hook route to the first down marker. The second target of the progression is the Cardinals tight end, due to his match-up against a linebacker (albeit a very stout coverage defender in Hightower).
You'll note that the Patriots did their best to keep the receivers on their outside during their routes- this is to both prevent them from slanting into the center of the field (easy target) and, if Kolb does throw it, it will have to be a tough catch on the sideline.
The Patriots defense is cheating over to the side of the Cardinals tight end, and you can see the position of Chung deters Kolb from even thinking of throwing in that direction. You'll also note that with Gregory cheating to the middle of the field, Devin McCourty has been entrusted to cover Larry Fitzgerald by himself. Can't say the coaches don't trust him.
Additionally, you can see Jerod Mayo in the center of everything, watching the middle of the field.
Here is the slightly developed play. Chung and Gregory are deep, watching the first down marker, trying to force Kolb to throw short to force a third and long.
McCourty hasn't jammed Fitzgerald, but instead has guided him towards the sideline. You can see Fitzgerald about to cut back inside- but since McCourty didn't commit to a full jam, he is able to adjust and run in Fitzgerald's pocket. You can see Moore in tight coverage on the opposite side of the field.
Mayo has dropped into coverage, on line with both the slot receiver and the tight end. Last season, the Patriots surrendered too many plays across the middle of the field in front or directly behind the linebackers. By playing the depth correctly, the receivers have no way to cut towards the middle- that's what an additional off-season can do for a defense.
You can also see that Hightower is passing the coverage of Heap off to Chung in order to protect his zone on the far side of the field. Technically this was a play-action pass, but no one bit on the Patriots end.
Looking further, it seems that if the opposing slot receiver cut off his route and turned it into an "out" he could have gained some open field space and a potential first down. Of course, he's just running the route he was given and no one should be at fault, but it will be interesting to see if teams start doing damage against Patriots defensive looks that perhaps overcompensate the coverage to the center of the field.
After the pass, you can see the Cardinals checkdown receiver on the 15 yard line. With Arrington covering the hook in the middle of the field, Mayo is able to jump towards the receiver to try and make a play. Hightower changes direction to come back to the ball as Chung assumes coverage role on the tight end. Even Wilfork peels off from his position at the point to help out and, eventually, make the tackle.
So in this play, we are able to see the impact of new players at all levels of the field:
Jones, Love, and Ninkovich are able to provide enough pressure, without conceding any running lanes as Kolb is unable to extend the play.
As Kolb doesn't have the time to extend the play and is forced to make a quick completion, Mayo and Hightower are able to confidently encounter the running back without fear that they're abandoning their post.
McCourty is on an island with Fitzgerald and stuck him like glue, while Arrington and Gregory paired up to eliminate the first down play. Chung and Hightower took away the second option, while Moore trapped his receiver on the side line.
Overall, this was a tremendous team play as every did their job. It's evidence that the defense has grown as a unit and that everyone has improved with their role. While the play seemed extremely simple (it was a dump off to the running back for crying out loud), the Patriots were playing chess and were willing to give up the short play to force a third and long, claiming this play as a big victory.
As the season progresses, the defense will have to continue to progress, but it seems as if they're starting the season on the right foot. They have been able to set the tone of the game as the offense struggled and have kept the Patriots in the game. Against Kevin Kolb.