As part of his weekly feature, former Pittsburgh Steeler CB and nfl.com analyst Ike Taylor highlighted the Patriots secondary for Week 11 on his Ike’s Island feature. The Patriots will play the Raiders, who have a very potent receiving corps. On the outside, they’ll contend with former Top 10 picks in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. The Raiders also have dangerous weapons in slot receiver Seth Roberts, tight end Jared Cook, as well as receiving backs Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington. All of them are capable of slicing apart the Patriots defense on any given play, which will put a lot of stress on the secondary.
The Patriots defense ranks dead last in yards allowed per drive (39.11), a lot of that due to inconsistent secondary play. After losing an entrenched starter in Logan Ryan in free agency, the Patriots replaced him with Stephon Gilmore, who they hoped would provide an upgrade. That led to growing pains in the secondary, which came to a head in the Patriots’ Week 4 loss to the Carolina Panthers. In addition to the growing pains, the CB position has dealt with injuries, with young rising CB Eric Rowe out with a groin injury he suffered in Week 2 and re-aggravated in Week 4. Gilmore missed 3 games with a concussion. In addition, the players that remained from last year haven’t been playing like they did to close 2016 with the exception of Patrick Chung who is arguably playing better.
The Patriots defense has done a solid job of preventing opponents from putting up points, evidenced by them allowing 17 or fewer points in 5 straight contests largely in thanks to outstanding special teams play giving the defense a long field to defend, even without two of their top three corners in the Atlanta and San Diego games, which they won by an average score of 22-10. Gilmore returned in the Patriots 41-16 win over the Denver Broncos, where in the game both he and Butler struggled on a handful of plays. Very often they allowed receptions when they were in position to make a play on the ball although at the same time both Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas deserve credit for outplaying the Patriots corners on those plays. Here’s how Taylor describes it as, calling it a “slump”.
At some point in a cornerback's career, you will have a year where you just can't do anything right. (I know from experience.) It's one of those seasons where it doesn't matter if you're in good position -- the receiver ends up with the ball and makes a play. It just so happens that both starting Patriots corners are going through that slump. The coaches have put the players in good position to make plays, but they haven't been able to finish. Communication in the secondary has been part of it, and a lot of that falls on safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. All four DBs haven't played consistently well, but most of the criticism is put on the cornerbacks because they are the ones on the island.
With both boundary corners seemingly going through that slump, teams have been able to move the ball well against them especially in the Denver game where Sanders and Thomas combined for 8 catches, 132 yards, and a touchdown against Gilmore and Butler. The defense was able to hold the Broncos to 1 TD in 3 Red Zone trips, which is why the defense was able to limit the effectiveness of those yards. The CB duo faces another tough challenge in both Cooper and Crabtree, where Cooper is a big play threat every time he gets his hands on the ball and Crabtree is more of a reliable chain mover that complements Cooper’s big play skill. Patriots have 7 games left in the regular season, four of them against prolific receiving groups in the Raiders, Steelers, and Dolphins, so Gilmore and Butler need to continue to be in the right spot so they can make plays on the ball.