For the third week in a row, second-year cornerback Ras-I Dowling was largely missing from the Patriots' defensive gameplan.
According to Mike Reiss from ESPN Boston, Dowling received just five snaps on Sunday. That was after Dowling played four snaps against the Ravens and zero snaps against the Cardinals. It wasn't always this way for the 33rd overall pick from the 2011 draft. In Week 1 Dowling was the main nickel defensive back, playing 36 snaps and limiting Sterling Moore to just one. Since then, there's been a role-reversal.
If Dowling is being benched for disciplinary reasons, we'll never know it. Bill Belichick doesn't divulge such information, because he doesn't need to. Belichick barely even releases information that he is required to based on his at-times cryptic injury reports.
One theory for why Dowling is being benched is that Moore works better in zone coverage, and especially when he has a safety helping him over the top. Moore proved his worth last season in the playoffs, and he hasn't struggled this year either. Dowling and Moore played equal snaps during the Patriots' preseason, with both usually playing well into the fourth quarter while other first and second string players were on the bench. It looked like Belichick was testing them to see who would emerge as the nickel-corner in the New England defense. After Week 1 it seemed that Dowling had won the spot, but now Moore must be having stronger practices.
Fans are wondering where Dowling is because he's such a talented player. He was shutting down offenses in the preseason, and had a strong start to his short rookie campaign as well in 2011. With the Patriots' secondary struggling at times, the thought is that Dowling would immediately fix that. Not so fast. Dowling would be taking Moore's spot on the outside in sub-packages and he isn't the defensive back that's struggling, it's Kyle Arrington and the safeties. Arrington moves to the slot in nickel and dime packages, and Belichick doesn't seem to think that Dowling or Moore can handle that role.
If Dowling can re-emerge as the "starting" nickel-back, it could take some pressure off the safeties and allow them to play other roles. With the way the Patriots' defense is currently constructed, Moore has help over the top on almost every play. Dowling has the potential to shut down one side of the defense, and that would allow Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson to help out the defense in other roles, especially in covering tight ends and running backs run shorter routes.
On Sunday, Devin McCourty and Moore played well against the Bills. McCourty allowed two receptions on seven targets for 23 yards and recorded two interceptions. He has finally embraced that he needs to turn to look at the ball to properly defend. Moore allowed one reception on five targets for just seven yards.
Arrington was another story altogether. He allowed three receptions on four targets for 86 yards and a touchdown. His biggest gaffe was on a 68-yard touchdown by Donald Jones where Arrington whiffed in coverage, and then hesitated when he should have been tackling Jones. That lead to Chung taking a bad angle and Jones running down the field largely untouched.
Wilson played the strongest amongst the Patriots' safeties, intercepting a pass and not allowing a reception on three targets. Wilson started eating into Gregory's snaps, playing 34 to Gregory's 51. Gregory struggled, allowing two receptions on two targets for 26 yards. He was also late to help out over the top a couple times, as was Chung. Chung allowed one touchdown reception for 24 yards on three targets. He had the unfortunate assignment of covering 6-foot-7 tight end Scott Chandler, who used his length and strength to catch the ball over Chung's head. If Chung had turned around to see the ball, the result may have been different though. Rookie Nate Ebner allowed a touchdown as well, biting too far inside before getting beat deep for 35 yards by Brad Smith.
Jerod Mayo may be the best Patriots linebacker in coverage, but that's not saying much. He allowed four receptions on four targets for 53 yards, and caught an interception off a Vince Wilfork deflection. Mayo stayed with Chandler well for a reception down the sideline, but didn't turn around, and usually looks awkward when asked to play in man coverage. Brandon Spikes was targeted three times, allowing two receptions for 42 yards and a touchdown. Spikes blew his coverage down the middle on another Chandler touchdown. Rookie Dont'a Hightower left the game early with a hamstring injury, and allowed one reception on one target for eight yards.
Wilfork was even "targeted" once when he wisely dropped into coverage from defensive tackle to deliver a punishing blow to Jones and popped the ball loose. The Bills also completed all five passes thrown in areas where the Patriots didn't have a defender in coverage. Those plays went for 43 yards and were mostly either screens or shallow passes underneath. That's an area where Belichick typically chooses to ignore, but if safeties weren't playing deep every play, they or the Patriots' linebackers could that that area.
Overall, it wasn't a terrific performance by the Patriots, but they made big plays when it mattered. Last year this defense was defined by the phrase "bend, don't break." If the 2012 squad can keep coming up with key stops and turnovers, they won't even need to bend.
Photo via Flickr/BethHart