Football may be the ultimate team sport. It certainly helps to have a great quarterback, but even he cannot succeed on his own. The offensive line has to lend protection, the receiver has to catch the ball, the defense has to keep the other team out of the end zone, and special teams can help both the offense and defense.
To look at the number of big passing plays the Patriots have given up to this point and pin them solely on the maligned secondary isn’t fair.
That group hasn’t looked great, out of position at times or taking bad angles, and by its own admission playing with poor technique. But good pass defense starts with the front seven, and New England still does not seem to be getting consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
According to Globe statistics, the Patriots defense generated 10 sacks, 23 knockdowns, and 31 quarterback hurries over the first six games of the season (numbers from the Jets game were not yet tabulated) — none of which are stellar totals.
When there isn’t a lot of pressure, the back end of the defense is asked to cover longer, increasing the chances that there will be a completion or a coverage breakdown.
The Patriots have allowed an NFL-worst 38 completions of 20 or more yards through the first seven games of the season, with six more coming Sunday during their overtime win over the Jets.
What’s more, nearly all of those big completions have come during scoring drives, 31 of the 38, leading to 18 touchdowns and five field goals. That’s 141 of the 163 points the Patriots have allowed thus far this season.
The big plays have been costly.
If there are answers about why the Patriots repeatedly have fallen victim to the long ball, they weren’t provided Monday during a conference call with Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
“We’re just trying to improve on everything each week and obviously trying to eliminate those to the best of our abilities,” Patricia said.
“It’s something that Coach [Belichick] mentioned: we spend time on it like we do on every aspect of offenses that we tend to see each week.”
It wasn’t like this at the start of the season. Against Tennessee, with quarterback Jake Locker making his first-ever start, New England allowed three 20-plus passes, totaling 88 yards.
The next week, against Arizona and Kevin Kolb, it was a season-low two such passes.
But then came Baltimore, and the deep ball has been the Patriots’ enemy ever since.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had nine completions of more than 20 yards. On a night when he went 28 of 39 for 382 yards, 252 of those yards came on those nine big plays. Not surprisingly, those plays played a role in all four of Baltimore’s touchdowns and its only field goal.
Since then, the numbers haven’t improved.
Buffalo had seven 20-yard-plus passes, including all four of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s touchdown throws; Denver’s Peyton Manning had five; Seattle’s Russell Wilson had six, and the Jets’ Mark Sanchez also completed six, though Stephen Hill dropped one toward the end of the game that could have spelled doom for the Patriots.
Wilson, who had the best day of his young career in bringing the Seahawks from behind, racked up 237 passing yards on just six plays. He had a mere 56 passing yards spread among his other 10 completions on the afternoon.
The Patriots know they’ll be targeted until they fix the problem.
“We understand it is a little bit of a copycat league, so we are prepared for those things to try to repeat from week to week and we’re trying to do a good job here of getting everything handled to the best of our ability,” Patricia said.
At the current rate, the Patriots will allow 87 passes of 20 yards-plus this season, even more than their league-worst 79 last year.
Since 2007, the Patriots have gotten steadily worse: they allowed 32 in ’07, when they dominated nearly every game and teams were forced to pass to try to catch up; 38 in 2008, 42 in 2009, and 55 in 2010. They slipped farther and farther down the league ranking in the category each year.
Patricia was asked several times why there has been no improvement in the Patriots pass defense, which is once again last in the AFC and 29th in the NFL. Again and again, he reverted to the line that they are trying to get better.
But every team is trying to get better, and some teams are showing signs that they are. So what is the barrier to the Patriots’ progress?
“I think it really comes down to us just trying to get better every week,” Patricia said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do.”