What transpired during the first 4 1/2 minutes of the third quarter was ugly and had fans filtering out of Gillette Stadium and turning their televisions off to get an early night. It wasn’t all because of the knee injury of rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, but that certainly didn’t help matters, either.
One play stands out in particular, although it didn’t take place during those first few minutes of the second half. Just as New England had tied San Francisco at 31 with just under seven minutes to play in the game, the 49ers scored on a deflating 38-yard touchdown pass from Colin Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree. And guess who was covering the fourth-year receiver? Dennard’s replacement, Kyle Arrington.
Of course, Arrington had little to do with the first 31 points the Patriots gave up. And Dennard had already allowed some of those points before he went down. But when there’s one play that sticks out like a sore thumb, like when Arrington let Crabtree blow by him like a Spanish fighting bull for the go-ahead score, well, it’s easy to point to an injury as one of the causes for the loss.
For the past five weeks since Aqib Talib joined the Patriots, forcing Arrington into the slot, one thing has been obvious: The Patriots’ defensive backs play best with Talib and Dennard outside and Arrington in a more limited role inside.
When Dennard came out, that forced Arrington outside, where he struggled mightily early in the season. Typically, Arrington is at least a solid tackler for New England. But when he’s forced to guard the sideline, he turns into a different, much more cautious player.
There’s no word on how long Dennard is expected to be out or if he’ll miss any time at all. He was riding a stationary bike on the sideline during the end of the game — which is a good sign — but Bill Belichick has also been known to keep players out until they’re fully healthy down the stretch. And that fact that Dennard didn’t return to the game when the game was on the line is a not-so-good sign.
While the Patriots should beat Jacksonville and Miami easily in their last two weeks, and it may be smart to rest starters before the playoffs, that might not be the best route with the secondary. This is still a young unit that’s getting used to playing with one another. If Dennard is forced to miss playing time, that’s less time for he and Steve Gregory, Devin McCourty, Arrington, Talib and their reserves to mesh with one another.
Dennard’s knee likely won’t keep him out for the playoffs, but if it does, it would be a giant blow to a finally improving defensive unit. The loss to the 49ers was a tough blow to the Patriots’ chances for a first-round bye, but losing Dennard and blowing up the team’s most improved unit would be even bigger for the team. The team will just have to hope that Dennard will be back sooner than later to keep that secondary on the same page and in the best position to succeed.
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