By: Steve Balestrieri
The NFL pre-season is a time of universal hope and confidence, teams are about as healthy as they can be and have plans to carry them through the season.
This summer in Foxborough was no different, the Patriots did what they always seem to do during the NFL draft in April, they traded down and chose none of the edge rushers the Pats 3-4 defense desperately needed. But then they started signing veterans, players who don’t flourish in a 3-4 but in the more traditional 4-3 defense.
Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter and Mark Anderson were added to the mix and the town was abuzz with excitement. These players were unsuited to the 3-4 and more of 4-3 attacking styles. Might this mean that the Patriots were going (finally in some fans eyes) to a more attacking style and going after the QB?
Although pooh-poohed by Bill Belichick as a “media fabrication”, the Patriots were indeed practicing the 4-3 during training camp and we saw evidence of the attacking style as the defense dominated the offense in nearly every session of the Pats camp.
The secondary was (then) deemed as a source of strength, Devin McCourty, fresh off a Pro-Bowl rookie season was returning as was Leigh Bodden who missed all of 2010 with a shoulder injury. Ras-I Dowling the big corner from Virginia was drafted and Kyle Arrington rounded out a deep collection of corners.
Safety seemed set with Pat Chung, James Sanders, Brandon Merriweather and James Ihedigbo as insurance. The Pats were playing man to man and the defense was getting great pressure on the QB. No one was getting open against press coverage, and after a complete dismantling of the Tampa Bay Bucs in the second pre-season game, confidence was supreme. The defense might actually be as good as the offense.
Then the wheels came off, Sanders, Merriweather and later Haynesworth were dumped. Bodden, suffering from a bad back, was torched repeatedly until he too was let go. Dowling, his knock stating that he couldn’t stay healthy through college was hurt and landed on IR. McCourty had a nightmare beginning three or four weeks before starting to recover before he was hurt.
The Patriots were being ripped apart playing man coverage and had to resort to zone coverages again and once more play the ‘space for time’ game. The Bend but Don’t Break policy has been a big thorn in the side of the Patriots this year, although they currently rank at 11th in terms of defensive points allowed, they still rank 32nd against the pass. What happened to that defense that caused such a turn-around?
Well injuries definitely had something to do with it. Losing Bodden and Dowling certainly didn’t help matters, Chung being dinged up as well as losing LBs Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher didn’t help matters either.
But perhaps the biggest miscalculation this summer could have been that the Patriots coaches thought this defense was better in man coverage because of the success they had against their own offense.
One of the common refrains heard this year in all three Patriots losses as well as some of the close wins was that the opponents pressed the New England WRs at the line of scrimmage and they were unable to get a free release. As a result, no one was getting open and Tom Brady was unable to find anywhere to throw the ball. If there is a weakness on the Patriots offense, that’s it. Press the WRs and take away the short/medium pass to Wes Welker and the offense will struggle.
The Jets did this to the Patriots last January, and held the offense down. If the Patriots fail in the post-season, both sides of the ball will have to be held accountable for sure, but one has to wonder if this defense that was supposed to be, filled Bill Belichick was confidence to play a style that they’re unsuited for because of success against their own offense, in an area that they struggle in. Time will tell….