In matters concerning the New England Patriots, we here in this little corner of OT generally prefer to press forward rather than dwell on the immediate past. Maybe that’s a blandly Belichickian outlook, but the honest feeling here is that there’s generally more fun in pondering the games to come than in rehashing Sunday’s leftovers.
But there’s no denying that this past weekend delivered an exception to that philosophy, and so the Patriots’ 33-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers is worth dwelling on a little longer, for one reason: The defeat offered a harsh reminder of what the Patriots must do in order to become an elite defense again.
While watching that fearsome Pittsburgh unit — undeniably the finest in the NFL at the moment, both statistically and viscerally — the reality belted us, oh, about as hard as Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark drilled Wes Welker: Now, this is what a championship defense looks like. And the Patriots’ D? It looks nothing like this right now. Sigh.
Compared to the fast and furious Pittsburgh linebackers — please, tell me again how a talent like James Harrison went undrafted and was cut multiple times — the Patriots’ linebackers looked as though they were playing in snowshoes. The Steelers’ rangy safeties — Troy Polamalu and the aforementioned Clark (bet Rodney Harrison didn’t think that was a cheap shot) were so visible and active that you couldn’t help but be reminded of the comparative mediocrity of the Patriots’ tandem. And so it went — the Pittsburgh crew was superior in every imaginable way. You know it was a rough night when Ben Watson proved to be the Patriots’ best open-field tackler.
Do the math
It's not just that the Patriots are a playmaker (or two) short on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, either. They also lack the cohesiveness that might make the sum greater than the individual parts. In the franchise's championship heyday -- which we'd like to believe still belongs in the present tense, despite mounting evidence to the contrary -- the Patriots featured a unit that would often bend but rarely break (pecking out those words, I think of Willie McGinest's goal-line stop of the Colts' Edgerrin James during a pivotal victory late in the '03 season as the ultimate symbol of that approach). The way that defensive unit worked as one to stall opposing drive after opposing drive was a treat to behold.
Now? It's too often a bend-bend-bend-bend-watch-Deltha-get-scorched-break defense. Let me tell you, it's not nearly as fun a way to pass an afternoon.
Though it’s obvious that the Air Brady offense of a season ago masked more than a few defensive deficiencies, the problem has actually been festering for a while. I’m sure you need no reminder that the last two seasons were effectively lost when the defensive unit couldn’t make a play in the game’s final, pivotal moments. This season, with the free agent departure of cornerback Asante Samuel, a legitimate playmaker despite having goat horns attached to his helmet in the Super Bowl, the defensive issues have become more glaring.
Tactically, the defense appears trapped in a vicious cycle. It rarely blitzes because certain bumbling, flammable cornerbacks need all the help in coverage they can get. But the Patriots’ front three is collectively more competent at stuffing the run than at getting after the quarterback, and there isn’t a true, bloodthirsty pass rusher among the linebackers. Which means the opposing quarterback often has all the time he needs to find an open receiver. It’s a damned-if-you do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario, and it tells you all you need to know about the faith — or lack thereof — that Bill Belichick has in his last line of defense.
The cornerbacks are the worst culprits and the weakest links here — they’re like a Jimmy Hitchcock tribute band. Deltha O’Neal should be forced to swap his No. 21 for a bull’s-eye. Jonathan Wilhite and Mike Richardson are works in progress at best. Ellis Hobbs is the most capable of the crew — go ahead and file that under “damning with faint praise” — but his effort and self-confidence can’t make up for the fact that he’s roughly the size of one of Vince Wilfork’s limbs. Had Richard Seymour not arrived to finish off the little fella’s attempted sack of Ben Roethlisberger Sunday, Hobbs might still be dangling from the Pittsburgh quarterback’s leg, Jeff Van Gundy-style. Tell me again why the Patriots were reluctant to pay Samuel?
All is not lost
Our usual cynicism aside, we do not mean to suggest the cupboard is bare or the cause is hopeless. There is a perception, mostly spewed by the usual network nitwits, that the Patriots' defense is cumulatively ancient. That's not entirely the case. Sure, injured warrior Harrison, who turns 36 on Dec. 15, and Tedy Bruschi (35), are senior citizens by NFL standards, and Mike Vrabel (33) isn't the player he was just a year ago. But while time isn't being kind to some, Adalius Thomas (31), Seymour (29), Wilfork (27), Ty Warren (27), and Jerod Mayo (22) are still in their football prime or approaching it. This engine doesn't need to be completely rebuilt. It just a needs a few new parts installed by a capable mechanic.
These Patriots can still defend and defeat lesser teams on savvy and scheme. But to restore their elite status, they need elite players. No matter what happens in the remainder of this intriguing (if likely unfulfilling) season, it is imperative that Belichick and Scott Pioli find a true difference-maker or two in the off-season, whether it’s through the draft or, more likely, in free agency. Heck, I’m already practicing spelling “Nnamdi Asomugha” with the hope that the Raiders’ shutdown cornerback somehow ends up in New England, though he’s likely to be slapped with the franchise tag and kept in Al Davis’s Oakland purgatory.
Whether the Pats land Asomugha or Terrell Suggs, or draft some big man on campus currently making Pete Carroll look good, something needs to change with the Patriots’ defense, in the off-season or sooner. The Pittsburgh Steelers made that perfectly clear.
Personally, we’d start by having Deltha O’Neal turn in his playbook and go from there.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org