FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots can be given a pass for letting up 479 yards to the suddenly-lowly Steelers.
After all, by the end of Sunday’s 55-31 drubbing of Pittsburgh, New England was playing without six defensive starters.
Vince Wilfork was the first to go. He was lost for the season against the Falcons. Tommy Kelly was the next man down. He hurt his knee against the Bengals and was placed on injured reserve this week. Jerod Mayo — lost for the year — and Aqib Talib — expected back after the bye — went down against the Saints. The defense managed two games without any major injuries on defense, but the Patriots weren’t so lucky against the Steelers. Steve Gregory suffered a thumb injury and Rob Ninkovich hurt his foot.
So by the end of Sunday’s game, only Chandler Jones, Brandon Spikes, Devin McCourty, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington were left from the Week 1 starting defense. Dont’a Hightower played major snaps in that game, as well.
Despite being down more than half their starting defense, the pieces that are left and the players who have fit into place stood up yet again. New England allowed 21 second-half points but only seven in the final quarter. And after Pittsburgh was allowed back into the game midway through the third quarter, tying the score at 24, the Patriots stopped them on its ensuing two drives.
Up 48-17, the Steelers had one last gasp to get back into the game, but Duron Harmon ended that possibility with a wide-open end zone. As he put hit, “If quarterbacks are gonna throw it, I’m gonna catch it.”
On paper, it was probably the worst performance of the season on defense. New England allowed 371 passing yards and 108, for 5.4 per carry, on the ground. Two interceptions and five sacks went a long way in fixing any mistakes on defense, but in all reality, the performance wasn’t as bad as it looks on paper.
The Patriots’ offense actually played a big part in the poor statistical performance. When Tom Brady and the offense are firing on all cylinders, the opposing team will be forced to spread out the offense and pass more. And while it’s just as important to stop the offense in those situations, it’s equally as difficult.
It wasn’t good to see New England give up seven plays of over 20 yards. But quite frankly, when half the defense is missing, that’s going to happen.
What’s important is that the players who have asked to step up haven’t negatively stood out. Andre Carter had a sack in place of Ninkovich and Harmon has the interception while playing for Gregory. Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have played steadily without Wilfork and Kelly, Logan Ryan has emerged in place of Talib and Dane Fletcher, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes have all stepped up without Mayo.
Hightower had a key run stop in the second quarter and Fletcher had a sack for the second straight week. This defense will never live up to its full potential. That went out the window when Wilfork, Mayo and Kelly were lost. But they’ll only improve with Talib, Gregory and Ninkovich back.
What’s important is the players left from that starting defense are emerging too. Chandler Jones had two sacks on Sunday and McCourty may be the NFL’s best safety right now. While Troy Polamalu had three penalties, McCourty had a game-changing interception.
The Patriots’ defense let the offense step up against Pittsburgh. Before the end of the season, the defense will have to emerge yet again. At least they’ll be healthier at that point.