New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has been in the spotlight in recent weeks because of some major changes. All Pro LB Jamie Collins was traded to the Browns and contract-year starters like ED Jabaal Sheard, LB Dont’a Hightower, and CB Logan Ryan have all been benched at various points.
Patricia wants Patriots fans to have patience with the understanding that there is still a lot of football left to play in 2016.
“To go into a season with expectations for certain things and to be hardcore into those, I don’t really think that’s applicable,” Patricia said on Tuesday when asked about Collins and Sheard. “Each team is thought to be the best team that year and very rarely does it work out that way. We kind of deal with the season as it goes and with the guys that we have and we do the best that we can with it.
“Our expectations are the same every week. We’re going to go out and compete and do the best we can and try to improve week in, week out with whoever is out there, and that’s what we try to do.”
The expectations heaped on Collins, Hightower, Sheard, and Ryan centered on their performances in 2015 and the expectation that they would continue to develop in contract years. CB Malcolm Butler might be the only player on the defense playing at a higher level than in 2015.
“I think the part of the season in the NFL that is great is [that] it’s a long season,” Patricia said. “It’s a season that is continuously evolving. If you look at the teams through the course of the different seasons that have played that have wound up in the end where you want to be, I’m sure those teams have gone through a lot of different things throughout the season. We’re just kind of in that mix. It’s getting towards Thanksgiving. We’re going to try to play our best football here moving forward with whoever is out there and try to get better no matter what.”
It’s clear that the players deserve blame for failed execution. There were multiple plays where both Collins and Sheard were not executing their defined roles. Perhaps they were freelancing or chasing stats and tackles for loss in a contract year, or perhaps they just made mental errors, but the Patriots defense requires every single player to be on the same page- and when they’re not, the defense looks terrible.
And Patricia definitely deserves part of the blame as well. He was handed a defense without a real weakness at any position- especially based on 2015 performances- and turned it into an apparently average unit overnight. If the players aren’t performing up to the necessary level, it’s up to the coaches to find a way to make the talent produce.
“As a coach, I’ll...always look at myself first,” Patricia added, “and I’ll always try to make sure I’m doing everything I can to help our team prepare to win and do the best job I can week in and week out, which is what I really try to do. From that standpoint, those guys know that. We’re always trying to do whatever it takes to help the team win.”
What makes the defensive situation so frustrating is that the team returned almost every key player on defense from 2015, other than Chandler Jones, they’ve faced an extremely easy slate of opposing quarterbacks, and yet they’ve clearly taken a step backwards. I’m pretty sure most of New England is crying out, “Matty P, whatever you were doing last year, do more of that.”
That said, perhaps “players doing their job” is the missing ingredient between the 2015 and 2016 defenses, and that Patricia can’t conjure up his earlier defenses if the players aren’t going to execute them. And maybe some will counter that Patricia’s schemes are dumb and that’s why the players have been unsuccessful.
Hightower is at his most dangerous when he’s allowed the crash the line of scrimmage and bother the quarterback, but he hasn’t been able to do that with Elandon Roberts because Roberts can’t drop into coverage like Collins could. Trading Collins made Hightower less effective, although the strong performance of Kyle Van Noy makes for an intriguing development and possible return for Hightower.
Ryan is at his best when he’s assigned a wide receiver to shadow because he’s a tactician. He loves to devour film and find weaknesses and tells. Asking Ryan to cover multiple receivers could have an adverse effect on his preparation and follow through on the field.
Sheard was dominant in 2015 as the #3 defensive end in the rotation, but he has taken a step back as a starter. He will have to find whatever magic he summoned in 2015 because the coaching staff is in no rush to put him back on the field, just for the sake of playing him.
“I think Coach Belichick has obviously said it over and over and I think he’s said it best,” Patricia said. “For us, we’re just trying to put whoever is going to go out there and help us, give us the best opportunity to win.”
Whether it’s by failed execution or failed scheme, there have been times where the defense has not given the team the best opportunity to win. Fortunately, the Patriots offense is so transcendent they can overcome poor play on the defensive side of the ball.
There are six weeks left in the regular season. The Patriots are shuffling players at every position other than at safety in an attempt to find players that can execute at a high level. Time is running out.