by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com
Somnambulating is an activity akin to sleepwalking, which is a lovely activity for an autumn afternoon in Southeastern New England, but not for a professional football team's secondary. Unfortunately, for the New England Patriots, their defensive backfield spent the first half of the season. As the football team has bounced back from a rough start, the Patriots are back from the bye week facing the inconsistent Buffalo Bills.
With the acquisition of Aqib Talib from Tampa for a 4th round pick (Patriots got a 7th round pick in return as well), the Patriots (after Talib's suspension ends on Monday) can bolster their secondary with a cornerback who may actually be able to cover a receiver now and again. Despite the obvious improvement the last two weeks with Devin McCourty moved to safety and paired with rookie Tavon Wilson, this secondary is not holding a lead against any playoff caliber team at this point.
Putting McCourty back deep has helped because one of his strengths is playing the ball when he is facing the quarterback. At cornerback, he was fantastic his rookie season sitting in zone coverage and making plays on the ball. Since then, when his back is turned to the quarterback and he is running with the receiver, he has been beat downfield on long completions constantly and on too many other instances he has been numerously and frustratingly flagged for interference deep down the field again and again over the past few seasons. At times, he seems to have a glowing neon sign on his back that says "throw the ball when you see this" for quarterbacks to beat the Patriots secondary.
Despite these flaws, McCourty is the best cornerback on the roster. The defense will function best when Talib and McCourty are both at cornerback. To move McCourty to safety full time is short-sighted and foolish. The Patriots have serviceable safeties who can play at a high level when they get healthy. Aqib Talib will be close to McCourty's skill level if he can get on the field, stay healthy, and learn the defense. That allows the Patriots to move 7th round draft pick Alfonzo Dennard to the nickel corner or coming in on the dime, where he belongs. He may yet turn out as a serviceable cornerback in the NFL, but he needs time. Marquice Cole is best in small doses covering a slot receiver in the dime. He plays well in short bursts, but does not seem to be able to be a consistent corner.
Cornerback Kyle Arrington is a passable nickel corner on his best day, and he is out for a while with an injury. Sterling Moore, last seen playing the whole game at nickel corner, was released, passed over by every other NFL team, and re-signed to the practice squad, where he will be playing on the scout team in practice from now on. Newly re-signed defensive back Malcolm Williams joins safety Nate Ebner as another Patriots player drafted specifically to play special teams after not being a starter in college (that means, if you see them in the regular defense, grab a paper bag and start hyperventilating. Either of these two in the regular defense means things are going from bad to worse.).
Safety has been decimated. Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung have both been effective NFL safeties in the past, when healthy. Obviously, neither was 100% earlier in the season, and both should be healthy very soon and able to resume their starting roles. Rookie Tavon Wilson seems much more effective playing closer to the line of scrimmage at safety and helping defend the middle of the field and in run support. He is obviously a fit for his original role this season in the big nickel or a dime defense playing the third safety. It obviously plays to his strengths. As a rookie, he obviously has flaws, and the deep middle has been his achilles heel. Yes, that was Wilson who was burned deep against Seattle, and against St Louis on their first touchdown. Playing "centerfield" or the deep middle at safety and keeping the receivers in front of him has been a challenge for the rookie.
Unfortunately, we at home watching the games on television don't have the luxury of watching hours of coaches tape (the aerial overview of the entire field for each play) and knowing what the defensive play call was for all these 20+ yard plays the Patriots secondary has surrendered. Whether the breakdown in play calling, is a mental or physical mistake by the safeties, or by the cornerbacks, or a combination of all three. Certainly, the last game against St Louis had the Patriots shore up some of the deficiencies in the defensive backfield by effectively utilizing the front seven in a variety of different fronts and pressure schemes.
The Patriots defensive front seven has not generated consistent pressure since the days of Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel at linebacker, which is no coincidence. Beyond Jerod Mayo these past few years, the linebackers have been average to non-existent while the team played a vanilla 3-4 front with a zone behind them and generating next to no pressure. Where was the pass rush since 2008? Imagine, that team won 11 games with Matt Cassel at quarterback. Kansas City wins that many games with him over three seasons. That defense carried a Patriots team for the last time. Without linebackers that Bill Belichick can trust to get to the quarterback, to know the assignment, to have the football sense to make adjustments as needed, he kept them on an incredibly short leash. In his defense, Coach Bill Belichick was screwed over by General Manager Bill Belichick who could not bring any linebackers in through free agency or the draft who had any skills.
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