FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots’ pass defense made major strides from 2012 to 2013 — then injuries struck.
Cornerback Aqib Talib injured his hip during the Patriots’ Week 6 win over the New Orleans Saints, then reinjured it in his first game back in New England’s Week 11 loss to the Carolina Panthers. Cornerback Kyle Arrington has dealt with a groin injury for most of the season. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard has been banged up with knee and shoulder injuries. Safety Steve Gregory broke his thumb, then injured his knee. And safety Devin McCourty suffered a concussion in Week 16 against the Baltimore Ravens, then missed the regular-season finale.
Through all those injuries, the Patriots’ secondary has maintained steady play, thanks in large part to two Rutgers rookies: safety Duron Harmon and cornerback Logan Ryan. But to get back to the top tier, the Patriots will need Talib, Dennard, Gregory, Arrington and McCourty — their entire starting defensive backfield — back to full health.
The playoff bye week should be valuable in improving the secondary. McCourty likely will be back from his concussion, Dennard should be able to suit up, and Gregory, Arrington and Talib will be one step closer to 100 percent. Beyond just injuries, Talib says the secondary can greatly improve before the playoffs.
“I think we’re playing well, but I think we can get a lot better. We can get a lot better,” Talib stressed. “We really break down the tape, so we see a lot more than you all. I don’t know if you all break down the tape, but we see a little bit more than you all see. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We can get a lot better.”
That might be scary for opposing teams to hear. New England’s secondary was a top-five unit before injuries struck.
I wrote this on Halloween:
“The Patriots’ defense has allowed a 70.6 quarterback rating (fifth best in the NFL), 216 passing yards per game (fifth), 6.4 yards per attempt (sixth), nine touchdowns (eighth), a 54.9 percent completion percentage (second) and they have 10 interceptions (sixth). And that’s with linebackers who can’t really cover all that great and a pass rush that hasn’t completely lived up to its potential.”
For comparison’s sake, New England’s defense now ranks ninth in passer rating (81.0), 18th in passing yards per game (239), 13th in yards per attempt (7.0), 14th in touchdowns (25), 12th in interceptions (17) and fourth in completion percentage (57 percent). That’s a large drop-off from Week 8 to Week 17, but it also shows the potential of the unit.
The rest of the defense has improved around the secondary. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower is playing the best football of his career, and defensive tackle Sealver Silga has strengthened New England’s run defense. Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, Harmon and Ryan also have improved as the season has progressed. And all three players, plus rookie defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, have managed to stay healthy throughout the season.
Quarterback Tom Brady and the pass offense have not been at the top of their game the past two weeks. If the Patriots hope to win in the postseason, the pass defense will need to step up. Talib believes they have it in them.