The 2017 New England Patriots will only go as far as their secondary can take them this postseason.
Though the Patriots’ defense currently ranks sixth in points allowed, and the team as a whole is 11-3 in 2017, there’s good reason to be wary about the unit moving forward. The Patriots’ front seven is depleted, and their linebacker corps is among the worst in the NFL when Kyle Van Noy isn’t on the field. And he can only help so much.
In a few years, we’ll all have a good laugh about this defense. “Was that the year Jonathan Freeny came back for one game?” “Was that the year David Harris lurched around at middle linebacker?” “Was that the year Eric Lee looked like a Hall of Famer for two games?”
The Patriots’ linebackers are a big part of the reason why the Patriots are allowing a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry. The other reason they’re struggling lately is that defensive tackle Alan Branch is out with a knee injury.
The Patriots’ offense is so good and has so much upside, however, that struggles against the run might not matter if New England can get out to a big lead and keep moving down the field. That will force opposing teams to rely heavily on their passing game.
And that’s why the secondary is so important. The Patriots’ defensive backs clearly are the strength of the defense. There’s a ton of talent in the back end of the defense with Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler at cornerback and Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon at safety. The Patriots have solid depth at cornerback, as well, with Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones and Johnson Bademosi, all of whom have the potential to play at a high level, behind Gilmore and Butler.
The secondary has been inconsistent this season, however. Butler hasn’t played up to his standards all year, allowing 49 catches on 83 targets for 615 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions.
Gilmore looked like a total bust through the first four weeks of the season, showed signs of improvement in Week 5, missed three games with a concussion and came back strong before struggling again against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15.
The Patriots have toggled between Jones and Rowe as the third cornerback on defense. Jones was benched late in Week 14, and before causing the Patriots’ game-winning interception in Week 15, Rowe let up 109 yards and a touchdown to Steelers receivers.
Harmon has been the steadiest presence in the Patriots’ secondary with four interceptions and few lapses, but he plays less than 69 percent of defensive snaps. McCourty and Chung also have mostly been consistent throughout the season.
If the Patriots’ secondary plays like they did during a four-game stretch from Week 10 to 13, then the defense should be fine. But if they continue their up-and-down play over the last two weeks, then winning a third Super Bowl in four years will be a struggle.
Everything has to come together for the secondary at the right time as they enter the postseason. Weeks 16 and 17 against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets will be a nice tuneup before the unit really has to boost its play and show its full potential for the playoff run.
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