The Patriots tried to address their struggling secondary over the offseason, adding Tavon Wilson, Alfonzo Dennard and Nate Ebner in the draft and Steve Gregory and Marquice Cole in free agency. So far, it hasn't panned out the way they might have hoped.
At this point, it's nearly impossible to place blame on the players. It can't be that the team keeps bringing in untalented players, their scouting department simply can't be that bad. It's time to place blame on Bill Belichick's defensive scheme that doesn't suit the players in place.
Patrick Chung used to be one of the best players on the Patriots' defense. That of course, was when he was playing a position that supported his skill-set. The Patriots' safety is at his best when playing strong safety up in the box. He excelled last season against the Dolphins in that role covering tight end Anthony Fasano one-on-one and stopping Reggie Bush from getting anywhere rushing to the outside. Chung played a linebacker/safety hybrid role in Oregon, and is now being asked to play deep in a cover-two system where he's not instinctive enough and constantly finds himself out of position. Chung is still a good player, but he's a square peg trying to be fit in a round hole.
Another problem with the Patriots' defense is that it's built too heavily to stop the run. That's why the Patriots have three linebackers who weigh 245-pounds or more, none of which should be playing the typically lighter, faster weak-side spot. Jerod Mayo is currently holding down that position, but struggles when asked to run with tight ends. Rookie Dont'a Hightower may be the best Patriots' linebacker in coverage, but he's 6-foot-3, 270-pounds. He's fast for his size, but still not quick enough to be asked to cover quicker players.
At times against the Seahawks, New England had all three of their linebackers, Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich, playing a zone in the middle of the field covering absolutely no one. That just puts added pressure on the already taxed secondary who can't depend on their linebackers to eat up some of the skill players. The safeties will then cheat up, noticing tight ends or running backs seeping into deeper zones, which leaves cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington to get burned deep on the sidelines.
If anything, the Patriots should be blitzing their linebackers more often to put pressure on the opposing quarterback, forcing the ball out quicker and leaving less time for the defensive backs to maintain coverage. The Patriots generated very little pressure on Sunday outside of rookie Chandler Jones, who was impressive again.
There's so many flaws in the Patriots' defense that it's tough to pick out one or two that would at least make a quick fix. Getting Gregory back from injury will help — he's better in the cover-two than Chung and Wilson — but it would also help if Belichick would start trusting his cornerbacks more. McCourty, Arrington, Dennard and Ras-I Dowling are all physical players who can man-up and bump receivers at the line. They're already getting burned when given a two to three yard cushion, so playing press would at least throw off the timing of opposing offenses. It would also give their safeties more time to adjust deep.
There's nothing the team can do about bringing in faster linebackers at this point, and the three starters they have are very talented, but they're just not as strong against the pass as they are against the run. Bringing Chung up to help out in the shallow-to-intermediate area would help, and play to his strengths.
What the Patriots are currently running obviously isn't working. We've seen Belichick make some changes along the way, including more playing time for the rookie Dennard, but wholesale changes must be put into affect to fix the leaky pass defense. If anyone can do it, Belichick can. In Bill we trust.
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