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Blanket Coverage: Patriots must solve puzzle on defense after frazzled game vs. Seahawks

The Patriots flopped defensively against the Seahawks in Week 10, but as Greg Bedard points out, that's not completely out of character for New England. What steps must the team take now to ensure a strong defense come January?

On Sunday night, the nation watched as the Seahawks’ offense, considered average entering this game, roasted the Patriots’ defense. Final score: Seattle 31, New England 24.

The Seahawks made it look easy—Russell Wilson passed for 348 yards and the offense gained 420 total yards. They scored on seven of their nine drives, and those scoring drives went for at least seven plays. To add insult to injury, most of the drives that didn’t yield touchdowns ended because of Seattle unforced errors—not due to plays made by the Patriots.

This was New England’s first interaction with a good quarterback since the season opener against Carson Palmer and the Cardinals, and it was ugly, especially when you consider that the Patriots were coming off their bye week. In the wake of trading away DE Chandler Jones (off-season) and LB Jamie Collins (in-season), the performance has sent the New England region into a panic about whether or not the Patriots can win a Super Bowl with this defense.

The reaction is certainly understandable, But yes, the Patriots can still very much win the Super Bowl. However the road will be much tougher than it looked at the beginning of the season.

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After saying goodbye to Super Bowl starters like Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Vince Wilfork and Akeem Ayers, the New England defense finished 2015 ranked eighth in points and 10th in points allowed. So they had reason to believe that after trading Jones to Arizona to clear cap space during the off-season, the 2016 season could work out similarly. DE Jabaal Sheard was due for an increase in playing time, and veteran Chris Long was brought in to lock up the end position, ensuring that the Patriots would at least hold serve at the position. The Patriots had the look of a defensive unit that would climb into the top five in both scoring and yards.

Clearly, it hasn’t worked out. Yes, they’re sixth in points (thanks to a schedule that featured more Brock Osweilers and Landry Joneses than Russell Wilsons) but the Patriots are 18th in yards, 29th in sack rate, 20th in first downs allowed and 22nd in third-down defense.

What happened? You could make the case that only CB Malcolm Butler, LB Dont’a Hightower, DT Alan Branch and DE Trey Flowers have played consistently to their previous level or improved, while many others like Sheard (whose playing time has been drastically reduced), Collins (traded away), CB Logan Ryan, S Patrick Chung and DT Malcolm Brown have taken a step back.

The result was a unit that lacked confidence against the Seahawks. Normally, with a week to prepare and an opponent that is well known, you could expect the Patriots to take the field with razor precision to “do their job.” Instead, the Patriots looked unsure of themselves, which led to a lack of physicality. Outside of Butler, Hightower and Branch, no one is bringing the play to the opponent. While the Seahawks were busy thumping Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, QB Tom Brady and WR Julian Edelman, the Patriots were on their heels, trying to catch their breath and grasping at straws to execute the scheme properly and make a drive-ending play.

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But on the bright side, I know this is correctable because I’ve seen the Patriots’ defense have at least one porous defensive outing round about midseason many times before. These are the performances that came to mind:

2010, Week 9: Browns 34, Patriots 14. Yards allowed: 404 (230 rushing).
2011, Week 8: Steelers 25, Patriots 17. Yards allowed: 427 (329 passing).
2012, Week 10: Patriots 37, Bills 31. Yards allowed: 481 (319 passing).
2013, Week 14: Patriots 27, Browns 26. Yards allowed: 494 (386 passing).
2014, Week 13: Packers 26, Patriots 21. Yards allowed: 478 (348 passing).
2015, Week 10: Patriots 27, Giants 26. Yards allowed: 422 (342 passing).
2016, Week 10: Seahawks 31, Patriots 24. Yards allowed: 420 (324 passing).

New England rebounded from each performance and played acceptable defense down the stretch to varying results.

This year’s defense reminds me most of the 2011 unit that lost by eight to the Steelers—that loss was much worse than the score shows. Pittsburgh converted 63% of third downs and had six scoring opportunities on their first seven drives. The Patriots were so terrible that it was hard to think it was going to get better as they sent out such immortal players as Gary Guyton, Shaun Ellis, James Ihedigbo, Kyle Arrington, Antwaun Molden and Phillip Adams.

After losing to the Giants at home in Week 9 of 2011, New England then won 10 straight games (against a lineup of sterling QBs: Tyler Palko, Vince Young, Dan Orlovsky, Rex Grossman, Tim Tebow twice, Matt Moore and Ryan Fitzpatrick) to get to the Super Bowl, where the Patriots gave up nearly 400 yards of total offense for the second-straight game (Ravens in AFC Championship Game).

In the final seven games of the 2016 season, the Patriots face Colin Kaepernick, Bryce Petty (twice?), Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian and Ryan Tannehill (in a likely meaningless season finale for New England). And this Patriots defense has way more talent than the ’11 version—don’t forget, they played Julian Edelman at slot corner vs. Ravens WR Anquan Boldin in the AFC Championship Game.

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How will the Patriots get there, and how might they adjust?

The next three games against the 49ers, Jets and Rams gives the Patriots valuable practice and evaluation time before the back-to-back games against the Ravens and Broncos. And don’t be surprised by more personnel moves—Sheard and OLB Shea McClellin are possibilities given their diminished roles. Around the 2011 game, the Patriots released CB Leigh Bodden and DT Albert Haynesworth, and found role players like DBs Malcolm Williams and Sterling Moore, and DL Eric Moore to contribute.

New England needs to evaluate rookie Elandon Roberts in the MLB role in the next three games. Roberts was overwhelmed by the Seahawks, and if he doesn’t improve, Hightower may have to return to a full-time MLB role, which will create a trickle down effect. Perhaps the defense shifts to just two linebackers, with safety Nate Ebner next to Hightower.

The Patriots also need to settle on a rotation at both end and tackle. Right now there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason, and that is affecting the players.

Most importantly, the Patriots need to sort out roles is in the secondary. Beyond Butler, the depth chart is a mess, especially at cornerback where no one among Ryan, Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones has distinguished himself at No. 2 or No. 3 cornerback. New England may need to consider moving FS Devin McCourty to cornerback, letting Duron Harmon fill the free safety spot, but the Patriots would need someone like Jordan Richards (a second-round pick in 2015 should be capable of playing in some role on this defense) to emerge in two-deep coverages.

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Here’s the bottom line: the Patriots have a long ways to go to figure out the unexpected puzzle that is their 2016 defense. Luckily, the schedule affords them time to get it straightened out. And if history is any judge, what you saw against the Seahawks will not continue into the playoffs. The Patriots will improve, but the question remains whether it will ultimately be enough.

Blanket Report

Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines in the NFL this week:

Go crazy, folks:

Good for Roethlisberger: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger took a direct shot at coach Mike Tomlin, saying that the team was “undisciplined and not accountable” after their fourth-straight loss. I’m glad someone finally said it. While the Steelers are always in contention, they are notorious for playing down to their opponents and going through highs and lows each season—and that’s because Tomlin doesn’t have a good hold of his team.

Tomlin’s career record of 95–57 is well above average. His career postseason mark of 6–5, with three of those wins coming in the run to the 2008 Super Bowl, is not. The Steelers should be better than this, and they aren’t because of Tomlin.

O.K., Bill O’Brien: I have all the respect in the world for Texans coach Bill O’Brien and think he’s one of the better coaches in the league, but he pushed the threshold of believability this week when he was asked about picking guard Xavier Su’a-Filo with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, instead of now-Raiders QB Derek Carr.

“When it comes to the draft, [GM] Rick [Smith] and I, we just try to make the decision for the team and that's what we did,” O’Brien said. “We chose who we chose and we're happy with who we chose, but Derek is having a good year." The Texans are happy with who they picked? I know O’Brien isn’t going to throw his player under the bus, especially since Su’a-Filo has played better this season, but he needed a better non-answer there.

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Slow your roll:

Romo had no choice: Cowboys QB Tony Romo read a great statement about how Dak Prescott had earned the right to be the starting quarterback, and that he wouldn’t be a distraction. Romo was rightfully lauded for taking the high road but, really, what else was he going to do? The Prescott-led Cowboys have the best record in the league—was Romo going to throw a hissy fit to get his job back? Romo is playing it right. Prescott might come back down to Earth (or get hurt), and the Cowboys will need Romo to save the day. It’s great he stood up and made the statement, but Romo was really out of options.

It’s not Rodgers vs. McCarthy, it’s them vs. Thompson: A lot has been said about Aaron Rodgers’s and Mike McCarthy’s latest comments to the media. And, while yes, there have been times in the past when Rodgers has been frustrated with McCarthy, I don’t think is one of those times. I think Rodgers is just as unsure about his game as McCarthy is about pushing the right buttons to get his team to play the way he wants them to.

It’s no doubt that Rodgers has been handed a dose of humility this season. I think Rodgers and McCarthy are both a little frustrated with GM Ted Thompson, who has allowed his depth to be overrun by undrafted free agents and players that don’t belong on the field. I mean, it’s ridiculous for a contending team to be without a real running back for more than one week. Rodgers said this week that “there has to be that healthy fear as a player that if you don’t do your job they’ll get rid of you,” which I took that as a direct shot to Thompson and not McCarthy. Nobody ever gets cut in Green Bay (remember Brandon Bostick, who muffed the onside kick in the NFC Championship Game loss to Seattle? Others in the organization wanted him cut well before that). Thompson has only a draft (or sign) and develop philosophy. He never brings in veteran competition from the outside that could up the compete level or bring experience. No one is getting cut or benched but that’s because there are no other options thanks to Thompson, not McCarthy.

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10 thoughts on Week 11

1. The Bills-Bengals elimination bowl will come down to whether or not Cincinnati offensive line can protect QB Andy Dalton. For years the Bengals had one of the league’s best units, but they’ve taken a huge step back this season for some reason despite fielding largely the same personnel. RT Cedric Ogbuehi, the lone newcomer, has been a disaster and could be in for a long day vs. Bills OLB Jerry Hughes.

2. In the same week that Tony Romo ceded the QB job to Dak Prescott, the Cowboys will be facing their toughest defense. The Ravens are good enough up front that they could be the first team to really neutralize RB Ezekiel Elliott and make Prescott beat them. And with crafty veteran safeties Eric Weddle and Ladarius Webb back there, they’re going to throw some wrinkles at Prescott. This is a big challenge for the rookie QB.

3. The Steelers losing DE Cam Heyward (torn pectoral) for the season could derail Pittsburgh’s march to the postseason. He’s that crucial to the Steelers stopping the run.

4. Jaguars QB Blake Bortles had completely regressed to his college self—he’s not stepping into any throws and he drops the ball below his waist before throwing, making it way too easy to pick off his throws. This is a big reason why I advocated sitting Bortles his entire rookie season.

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5. The Colts will know exactly where they are coming out of the bye because the red-hot Titans offense could completely run and throw over them. Hopefully the Colts made some good adjustments or it could get ugly.

6. The up-and-down Buccaneers are a perfect matchup for the rock-steady Chiefs. Kansas City should be able to run and throw the ball as they want because the Bucs will make the big mistakes on both sides of the ball. Tampa Bay is getting better, but they’re a year away from beating a team like the Chiefs.

7. Cardinals QB Carson Palmer could be the team’s downfall against the Vikings. If Palmer isn’t accurate down the field, the Vikings are going to cause some turnovers. Vikings need some short fields to operate on offense.

8. Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill had one of the best games of his life against the Chargers, and he’s going to need to have another if Miami is going to stay on a roll. Many will point to his 39-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills, but that appeared to be a designed deep shot that called for Tannehill to throw it up no matter what (still, great throw). But the 56-yard pass to Devante Parker to setup the game-tying score? That was one of the best throws you’ll see anybody make in the face of pressure. But Tannehill needs to stack success to show he’s legit. The Rams will present one of those opportunities because they’ll shut down RB Jay Ajayi.

9. Eagles aggressive defensive front will need to find a way to keep QB Russell Wilson contained in the pocket to emerge with a victory. That’s not always easy in Jim Schwartz’s scheme.

10. The Packers’ linebackers outside of Nick Perry (Kyler Fackrell, Datone Jones, Julius Peppers, Blake Martinez and Joe Thomas) were a disaster against the Titans, and it could be just as bad against Washington. The Packers desperately need Clay Matthews back on the field, and that could happen.