New England's defense is ranked last in total yards (468.7 per game) and passing yards (377.0), and it's sixth in points allowed (26.3). The passing numbers are especially bad by comparison, as the Patriots have surrendered 100 more yards per game than the seventh-ranked Bears.
Every statistic is skewed after three weeks, since the sample size is still too small. After all, the Patriots are in the top 10 in points allowed along with the Saints (third), Falcons (tied for eighth), Eagles (tied for eighth) and Packers (10th), all of whom are considered serious Super Bowl contenders.
For the Patriots, Week 1 was a statistical aberration, when they switched to a prevent look in their last three defensive series and allowed the Dolphins to accumulate 213 yards from scrimmage. And while the Patriots weren't as solid against the Chargers in Week 2, they held tight end Antonio Gates off the stat sheet, which was a monumental feat, though it allowed wide receiver Vincent Jackson and the running backs to thrive in the passing game.
Things were just ugly against the Bills. They didn't record a sack and only put two hits on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and there were blown assignments throughout the game, including a touchdown pass to Scott Chandler and Fred Jackson's pivotal 38-yard reception in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Devin McCourty struggled in man coverage, surrendering a touchdown to Steve Johnson after failing to get a jam at the line. And the communication was a problem without safety Patrick Chung on the field.
The bright side is that Chung, defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth and cornerback Ras-I Dowling will return to action, which will undoubtedly help the defense progress over the course of the season. It's natural to think they'll improve with so many new pieces. Eleven of the 27 defensive players on Sunday's 53-man roster didn't play a single down for the Patriots in 2010, so it will take time to develop as a unit.
For the time being, as head coach Bill Belichick would say, the defense has been good enough to help the Patriots achieve a 2-1 record. They played well enough to execute the game plan and complement the offense against the Dolphins and Chargers, but the performance against the Bills was a setback.
For the most part, the Patriots rushed three defensive linemen and an outside linebacker while dropping two linebackers, three cornerbacks and two safeties into coverage. While the personnel changed, the Patriots sent four players and dropped seven on a large majority of their plays.
The lack of heavy blitzing was puzzling. One time, when they brought their most aggressive pass rush of the game — early in the fourth quarter on third-and-8 at the Buffalo 8-yard line — the Patriots got right into Fitzpatrick's face and forced him to throw the ball away.
The thinking, at least here, is if the Patriots are struggling with seven players in coverage, it would make sense to blitz with a little more ferocity to mix it up. It seems like the Patriots have tried to win the battle at the line of scrimmage with their talented four-man fronts, and that philosophy made sense through two games with Haynesworth in the fold (though his performance was up and down during his time on the field). Without Myron Pryor, who went on injured reserve, and Haynesworth against the Bills, the Patriots lost two of their best interior weapons, and the pressure from the line subsided.
The Patriots' bend-don't-break philosophy worked just fine in 2010, as they waited for their opponents to make a mistake and capitalized by finishing second in the league in forced turnovers. But when they get the sense that it's not enough — like in Buffalo — it would seem beneficial to attack more to force mistakes, rather than waiting on them.
There's no doubt that they've got the talent, but the adjustments are taking their time due to new personnel and a refined defensive scheme. The defense has gotten off to a disappointing start, but the group might be able to boost its performance by ratcheting up the intensity with more blitz packages. At this point, it's worth a look.
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