Patriots Pyrrhic Victory Versus Colts - Part two: Defense

by Hal Bent,

The New England Patriots rolled to victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, 59 to 24. As is par for the course in New England, the defense took a few series to get their feet under them.  As is rarely par for the course in New England, the Patriots defense put up 14 points off turnovers (and add in a punt return for a touchdown) and the Patriots turned the game around with Tom Brady sitting on the sidelines. Yes, Brady did come in and yet again make a case for NFL MVP (Peyton Manning will win it, but is anyone doing more to win week-in and week-out than Brady?), but after the first quarter, this looked like a consistent team effort.  Unfortunately, the all-world tight end/spike enthusiast Rob Gronkowksi left late in the game with a broken forearm that required surgery and is likely to miss a month at minimum. 

Some quick-hit thoughts on what transpired with the Patriots defense in Foxboro on Sunday:

  • Secondary becomes secondary:
    • Cornerback Aqib Talib burst onto the scene with an impressive debut in the red, white, and blue with a second quarter interception and 59 yard return for a touchdown to give the Patriots a lead they would never relinquish.  Yes, he allowed two touchdowns (Hilton's first was a great catch, no cornerback would have a chance to stop a diving catch on the ground in the back of the end zone). As many fans had hoped, Talib stepped in and paired with Alfonzo Dennard to give the Patriots some decent play in the secondary as Devin McCourtey stayed at safety with Patrick Chung inactive again.
    • As Chung was a game-time decision, he stands to be able to play Thanksgiving night in New Jersey against the Rex Ryan green team.  I still think it makes the most sense to have the two best cornerbacks (Talib and McCourtey) matching up against receivers and leaving Chung and Steve Gregory to man the safety position.  That would allow Dennard to come in as the nickel cornerback and push Kyle Arrington off the field, as Arrington has been dreadful.  What most pundits seem to indicate is that Talib and Dennard match-up at corner, with McCourtey and Chung at safety, and Gregory as big nickel safety (matching up with running back/tight end and playing closer to the line of scrimmage).  It will be interesting to see how the secondary eventually shakes out. 
    • Another thought that struck me while watching cornerback Kyle Arrington get torched repeatedly early on in the game, was wondering if the best free safety on the team would be Arrington. He has decent hands (seven interceptions a few seasons back) and seemed to thrive in zone defense and struggle playing man-to-man.  Arrington could be a fit playing the deep middle of the field and ball-hawking rather than being beat repeatedly in coverage. 
    • Alfonzo Dennard continues to look like a seventh-round steal at cornerback, apparently working to make second-round disappointment Ras-I Dowling the big name camp cut next summer. While Dowling has been unable to stay off injured reserve the past two season, Dennard (when finally healthy) has made a few big plays at cornerback. He keeps forcing his way onto the field, and while not a shut-down corner, at least shows promise. 
  • Blitzes!
    • The Patriots front seven finally brought some heat.  Forget the sack numbers, it's an over-rated stat.  Pressure is what causes incompletions and turnovers for the defense. The linebackers all got in on the pass rush to varying degrees and took rookie Colts QB Ryan Luck out of rhythm and made him get rid of the ball before he wanted to all throughout the second and third quarters of the game.  The defensive line brought pressure with Vince Wilfork collapsing the pocket and Rob Ninkovich getting around the edge.
    • The run defense was suspect again, but the Colts gave up on the running game once they fell behind. The defense was all about stopping Luck, apparently content to let Vic Ballard run for five yards at a time as a concession.  Hopefully, this is a mid-season hiccup, and the run defense will crack down again and make opposing teams one dimensional.  Giving up a few yards here and there in order to get at the quarterback and force turnovers is a trade-off worth making. 
  • Bitten by the injury bug: 
    • Bad enough the offense was already missing all-pro guard Logan Mankins and lost tight-end Rob Gronkowski, but the defense lost rookie star defensive end Chandler Jones to an ankle injury early in the game.  Jones did not return, and is out for the Thanksgiving game versus the Jets.  As the Patriots best pure pass rusher, the loss of Jones will be felt; however, the team did a nice job of continuing to generate pressure with Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham filling in.  Cunningham, thought to be a bust, burst back onto the scene this year as a consistent pass rusher. Number Ninety-Six has been in the backfield all season, rushing both from the edge and inside. Cunningham stepped in for Jones and did a great job keeping Luck off balance and hurrying throws. 
    • There is not a lot of news about Jones's ankle injury, but it may not be all bad if he gets back in a week or two. Free agent signing Trevor Scott can also help the pass rush short-term while Jones is out.  Also, a few weeks off now keeps Jones fresh for January. The lack of news is disconcerting, but a few weeks off with a sprain is not too bad a circumstance.  Short-term, the loss of Jones leaves the Patriots without their best pass rusher, but depth was built for a reason. Now to see if it works out.
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