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Bend and then break

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff December 4, 2008 05:58 AM

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 finn@globe.com

6 comments so far...
  1. Chad:

    Their draft failures and losses the past few years are haunting them today but let's also consider that they negelected the defense the past few years and it will take time to get back to something respectable. Losing Thomas to injury has really hurt them. Who can forget his double sack on Brett and Leon back in the opener? Losing Harrison and Williams has limited their abilities to do some things as well. I think the young corners are going to need time to develop but they have some speed back there. The other thing to watch is the development of Mayo and Guyton. Those two can actually run and get after the ball carriers. Don't know about Redd but maybe he or Crable will merge as a specialist rusher.

    The best thing that could happen for them is to not make the playoffs, have SD continue to fail and then have three players in the top 50 that can be drafted for defense. A few veteran pickups in the offseason to give depth and time for younger players to emerge and they can be good enough to win. I also think that Jarvis Green must be hurt since he has been an effective rusher in the past. Seymour is back to collapsing the pocket but Wilfork looks lame compared to Hampton of the Steelers.

    It's a shame that the beat writers for the paper won't offer anything but superficial criticism of the team.

    Posted by rob December 4, 08 11:30 AM
  1. I agree with most of Rob says except that Wifork doesn't look lame - he was by far the best defensive player vs Miami two weeks ago - and the never hope that the pats don't make the playoffs. Sure it could be a short run but I hate that mentality.

    After falling in love with mayo against the Jets he seems to have hit a mini wall these last two weeks. Be nice if he can return to that form. Merriweather has shown improvement this year but that's it. Wheatley was just starting to make plays when he got hurt. The Secondary is Belichicks kryptonite.

    Posted by mo December 4, 08 03:29 PM
  1. O.K. I guess I would concede that Asante had an overarching and pompous attitude about money and getting paid (read; tattoo - get paid) especially after not sealing the SB win, but if he had to go; well thought I would never say it, but Randy Gay is looking pretty good about now. Fernado Bryant was a bust and Ty Law signing with the Jets instead of NE for the money he did just bewilders most of us long time Pats fans. Add the injuries back there and it's all pretty ugly for the secondary this year. What a strange turn of events that have all seemed to have not worked out in our favor!

    Posted by Nighthawk December 4, 08 04:52 PM
  1. Having seen both Jenkins and Hampton I can say both destroy Centers. Koppen was owned by both of them. And, they both get up field better than Wilfork. This is also a bad time of the year for rookies. Last year they were preparing for a bowl game and taking exams. Yes, there is practice but college is not the NFL.

    Posted by rob December 4, 08 05:44 PM
  1. Hey is there anyway we could bring back Troy Brown as corner or safety? We need help in that dept. It seemed to be on nearly every third down against the Seahawks, until the second half !!!

    Posted by Michael Belmonte December 8, 08 02:39 PM
  1. I think Belichick and Pioli missed the call about 5 years ago when Gilette went to turf along with everyone else except Pitt and Chicago. That, along with the ridiculously ticky-tack way fouls are called on secondaries now, has completely changed the game. It used to be about controlling scrimmage because teams had to run the ball a lot or their receivers would get beat up bad. Now it's all speed and finesse. Not necessarily a bad thing (I think it is), but the Pats held on to the "7 linemen" model of defense too long.

    And the offense hasn't helped much either. Cassell has been better than advertised, but he can't score from inside the 20. If it gets in the red zone, you can pretty much put 3 on the board. That keeps opponents in their comfort zone and offensive game plan by not breaking the lead.

    That said, I think the biggest problem for them has been continuity. They've lost too many people too often to injuries. 14 on IR and counting... a defense needs to play as a unit so that it knows without thinking where everyone will be and how everyone will react to a situation. I think it's shown up in a few places, but the Jets game stands out. Mayo and Guyton played out of their minds, but a blown assignment ended up losing the game in OT. In a lot of ways, they haven't had a fair chance.

    Posted by Roga December 10, 08 11:52 PM
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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
Tony Massarotti is a Boston Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. He is currently spotlighted as a featured columnist on Boston.com.
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