By: Steve Balestrieri
In a cloud of thick dust, the convoy came to a halt. The tall immaculate general waited till the driver opened the door then descended slowly, his highly polished riding boots sinking into the Tunisian dust. For a long interval he eyed the scene around him. Then with an imperious slap of his riding switch against the calf of his boot the general stalked towards the headquarters of the US II Corps. ‘Old Blood an’ Guts’ had arrived to take command.
Okay so maybe the arrival of Aqib Talib isn’t quite akin to the arrival of General George Patton to the II Corps in Tunisia in Feb. 1943. But the New England Patriots like the II Corps had just got their lunch handed to them, the Patriots by the Buffalo Bills and II Corps by the Germans at the Kasserine Pass.
Much is expected to change with the arrival of Talib and very well may, but unless the Patriots change the WAY they play, Talib’s arrival will provide the same level of frustration the Patriots fans are encountering right now. So first we ask:
What Ails the defense?: Ask this question to most people on the street and you’ll immediately get “The Secondary”, true enough, the secondary is struggling but the Patriots woes on their pass defense are hardly confined to the secondary play.
Like a patient in a hospital, the final symptoms of a problem may be the most glaring, however there is usually more than meets the eye and with this defense it most certainly does. The defense struggles on the back end, and Talib will most certainly help with that, in fact he automatically becomes the most talented corner on the roster. But where else are they struggling
Pass Rush or Not to Rush: The front four rushing the passer aren’t getting it done….period. I know Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich have at times gotten good pressure, at times being the definitive word. By and large, opposing QBs have time to scan for 2nd, 3rd and even 4th options looking down the field and Talib, Ty Law or Deion Sanders isn’t going to be able to cover anyone for that long.
The NFL being a copycat league that it is, the Patriots have tried to emulate the NY Giants in their pass rush with just four down linemen. And with good cause, it was the New York Giants who defeated the Pats in their last two Super Bowl appearances by rushing Tom Brady very effectively with just four linemen. The Patriots are even going ultra-light with four defensive ends at times, rushing Ninkovich, Jones, Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Francis.
It’s still not working, need proof? Look at the numbers Mark Sanchez, Russell Wilson and Ryan Fitzpatrick are putting up on them. They need to bring more pressure to bear on opposing QBs than just their front four can do.
Coverage doesn’t just mean the Secondary: As Patriots fans we love watching our linebackers thump the oppositions’ running backs in the rush defense and they are very good at it. All three, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower are big, physical downhill style players who excel at putting a lick on running backs. But in coverage, they’re all a liability, a big liability.
The linebackers can’t cover tight ends over the middle or down the seam and routinely abused by running backs that run out in the flat or come out on short check-down routes out of the backfield. Can’t see how Talib would be much help there, unless the LBs get a dose of coverage skills by osmosis. Not going to get into why the coaches didn’t use Bobby Carpenter when he was with the team. Carpenter was their best coverage linebacker and cutting him to add yet another tight end is puzzling to say the least.
Patriots Zone Coverages aren’t stopping anyone: The Patriots play a lot of zone, soft zone coverages that trade space for time. They allow you to get the plays that will move the chains and play a waiting game for the opposing QB to make a mistake. That works fairly well against the bottom feeders of the NFL, but against the top teams that doesn’t work well at all.
We saw what Peyton Manning did about a month ago when down by large margin, he rallied the Broncos to a near win by torching a lot of zone coverages. Now in fairness to the Patriots defense, Manning does that to everyone, not just New England but the Patriots can’t just sit back in the second halves of games and play strictly zone coverages.
So Can they get better…and will they?: Yes to both questions because they know have a corner that will make the other secondary players a little bit better by him being there. And more importantly, it will allow them to change HOW they play defense.
Putting Talib out there on the opposition’s best WR will, when he’s on his game, allow the Patriots to neutralize the opposition’s best weapon. While I won’t go so far to call him a shutdown corner in the manner of a Sanders or a Revis, he’s very good and is a huge upgrade at the position.
More so, it will allow the Patriots to play more press man coverage and disrupt opponents timing routes off the line of scrimmage, which takes away some of the huge holes in the zones that the linebackers struggle in defending. It will also take away more of the middle of the field where the Patriots are…..challenged is a PC way of putting it and forcing opponents to throw over the defender to the outside.
Flip-side of Man Coverage: Of course, the other part of playing man coverage is that the Patriots can finally start to play more aggressively on defense and that means blitzing more than they do now which is very little.
Blitzing is a double-edged sword; it can mask deficiencies in a secondary by forcing a QB to throw the ball earlier than he cares to, basically unloading it out of bounds, to a check-down receiver or…the preferred method is to get a sack of the QB before he can unload the ball.
Blitzing can also produce big plays, for the offense. And the Patriots have already done that, too many times this season. One of the reasons that Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick may be so wary of blitzing is that the team is already giving up far too many big plays and with the struggles in coverage across the board, don’t have the confidence that the secondary or linebackers can hold up.
At this point, the only way to go is up, with Talib they at least have a proven corner who can man up. He’s not going to help in the best way he can unless the team adjusts the way they play defense. They need to play more man coverage and bring pressure to bear on the QB. That may be all that is needed from going from a poor defense to one that will be ok. Because as long as Brady remains at QB, the Patriots have a chance to win any game, and that includes the one that got away from them last February.
So I wonder if Talib arrived in an old Ford Command Car today at Patriots Place with the sirens blazing in the cool dawn hours? Probably not, Happy Veterans’ Day everyone.