Brandon Spikes, Rob Ninkovich, Bill Belichick and Jerod Mayo will have to step up the defense's play. (Steve Balestrieri -photo)

The New England Patriots defense took a giant step backwards last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers and is once again searching for answers.

The Patriots, worried about the Steelers speed to the outside with WR Mike Wallace, played soft zones and covered the deep ball but left the underneath routes wide open, particularly in the middle of the field. The Steelers like to attack the middle of the field and TE Heath Miller is a favorite target of QB Ben Roethlisberger on third downs and Pittsburgh was more than happy to forego the deep ball with routes wide open in the middle.

Things don’t get any easier this week as the New York Giants come to town with QB Eli Manning having perhaps his best season of his career. Manning is sporting a QB rating of 102.1 and averaging over 287 yards per game. Manning has deep threats in Hakeem Nicks and former UMass product Victor Cruz. So unless the Pats want another repeat of Sunday, things need to change with the defense.

So what do they do on defense? Is the sky truly falling as many would have you believe? Well as bad as things are, they are far from fixable and at 5-2, the Patriots are still in great position to win the division again. So climb down from the bridge, things could be worse (Dolphins fans would tend to agree), besides the water underneath the Zakim Bridge is cold this time of year. Here are a few things they CAN do:

Better, Improved Communication in the Secondary: Pat Chung admitted the communication stunk against the Steelers. So rather than lament the release of James Sanders again, (he’s gone so focus on who is here rather than who isn’t) things need to get better. The return of Jerod Mayo means he will be the one calling the signals now, not MLB Brandon Spikes. This isn’t an indictment of Spikes at all, just that Mayo is better at it and more experienced.

Chung will have to take a better, more active role as well. With the revolving door on in-effective FS play, it will be up to him to ensure that whoever is at FS, they know their responsibilities. With that in mind…

Schemes in Secondary need to be more AGGRESSIVE: It’s amazing how much of a Jekyll and Hyde persona this team has, so aggressive on offense and so passive on defense. This “bend but not break” and give them everything underneath until they reach the red zone will not win any games against the better teams.

The defense needs to mix up its zone coverages with man-to-man at times and mix things up. If the team gives up a deep ball on occasion, so be it. With Brady and the offense, they’re going to score points. If you’re going to make a mistake, make it aggressively going forward not back-stepping. Challenge opponents and be physical with them at the line of scrimmage.

The linebackers coverage has been poor, they haven’t been able to accurately judge whether they’re taking a too deep or too shallow of a drop and have been gashed over the middle. Spikes was never thought of a great coverage guy but what is more surprising is that Gary Guyton, the Pats fastest and best coverage linebacker, has struggled even more so and on one glaring play dropped in the wrong direction away from a receiver right in front of him.

Having Mayo back will help somewhat but all of them will have to get better. Rob Ninkovich had perhaps his worst game of the season in Pittsburgh and he needs to get better as well, because there is little behind them. Jermaine Cunnigham is invisible these days getting no snaps at DE and completely unsuited to be a 4-3 OLB.

Improving the Pass Rush: Haven’t we heard this before?, without getting (again) into why the Pats didn’t see fit to draft a J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan or a Aldon Smith, they have to play the hand they’re dealt. But this has been an issue since Willie McGinest left town.

But all isn’t lost just yet, although the pass rush is far from where it needs to be, it isn’t completely shot as Andre Carter has been playing well and besides playing the run and setting the edge very effectively, he’s gotten some good pressure on the QB as well.

With Albert Haynesworth battling injuries, he’s only played about 25% of the Patriots defensive snaps. That number will have to increase down the stretch. When he is on the field, the pass rush is much better as he draws double and as we saw against Dallas a triple team. He and Vince Wilfork can do a great job of collapsing the pocket and allowing the DEs and LBs to make plays and sacks.

While Carter has played well at DE, Shaun Ellis has been a disappointment. He’s struggled in his return from an off-season hip surgery and has seemed slow and ineffective at his DE slot. Now his ribs are hurting and he may miss some time.

This may be a blessing in disguise, if Ellis is inactive against the Giants, it will be time for Cunningham to play up to his potential or be gone next season. Maybe that is what’s needed to light a fire under him. On passing downs, the team needs to play Mark Anderson more. I would actually play Anderson more on every down. Granted his struggles against the run are well documented but his ability to get to the QB from the edge is a factor that needs to be considered.

Playing Anderson and Carter at bookend DEs improves the Patriots pass rush, the next thing they need to do is pin their ears back and go after opposing QBs with a relentless attack using Mayo and Spikes as blitzers. Nothing helps a struggling secondary more than having a QB having to throw the ball in less than 3 seconds. Roethlisberger attacked them using a 3 step drop a lot on Sunday, look for Manning to do the same. If they can adversely affect that, then the defense will improve expotentially.

“It is what it is, but it ain’t what it seems….”