The Patriots have lost three games in 2012 by a combined four points, and despite the thin line between 6-0 and 3-3, having a .500 record in mid-October is uncomfortable for a fan base accustomed to ruling the AFC East with an iron fist.
While the offense and defense share the blame for the up-and-down start, it’s been the defense that has re-established itself as the primary weak link. Tom Brady and the offense have had their moments of shaky play, but for the most part few would argue they lack the personnel or scheme to take this team far in the playoffs.
The defense though continues to struggle in ways we’ve seen for the better part of three seasons. Whether it’s the secondary or the pass rush the Pats just can’t seem to put it all together consistently for sixty minutes.
But there’s still much football to be played, and I haven’t given up hope that this is a defense that can win a Super Bowl. There certainly needs to be improvements in a few different areas, so here are three keys as I see them to solidifying the Pats defense.
1. Steve Gregory & Patrick Chung - Health & Consistency
We’ll start on the back end because the Pats have been the worst in the NFL for the second straight season at defending the long ball. Neither Chung nor Gregory are the second coming of Ed Reed, but if both can get healthy and put together a string of games together they’re both bound to improve.
Let’s not forget the Pats were worse through 6 games last year on big plays (37 20+ pass plays given up compared to 33 this year), and that was a less talented group. Now with Chung, Gregory and Tavon Wilson the Pats just need to string some games together with them all on the field. In a defense that relies on communication, disguise and intelligence you can’t understate the importance of experience.
If all of them can get back on the field the back end should tighten up, and just a couple less big plays per game would make a big difference. And at this point I believe Gregory and Wilson might be the best starting options.
2. Myron Pryor - The Great Unknown
Myron Pryor hasn’t played a full season since 2009 so it might be foolish to even attempt to count on him for anything, however he is exactly the kind of player the Pats need on the defensive line right now. In the 2011 opener against the Dolphins Pryor was a pass rushing force, grading out with a team-leading 3.9 pass rush grade from Pro Football Focus.
What the Pats have struggled with is finding an interior rush presence; a disruptor who can get up the field. Mike Wright was the last good one they had, and the signing of Jonathan Fanene this past off-season was an attempt to fill that role, but that didn’t work out. With Pryor starting the season on the PUP list the Pats have been forced to use Jermaine Cunningham as their top interior rusher, a role that he has not excelled in.
If Pryor can somehow come back and live up to the pass rush flash we saw at various times over the 2009-2011 seasons it would add a much-needed dynamic to defensive front.
3. Dont’a Hightower and the Blitz
Hightower was praised for his versatility coming out of Alabama, which included rushing the passer with his hand down in passing situations. There’s no question the Pats are a conservative defense, but they must find a way to utilize Hightower and his skill for getting after the quarterback.
We were just starting to see some of it when he sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick on the play he was injured. He has a burst that helps him stand out and if Pryor is not the answer I’d look at trying Hightower as an interior rusher instead of Cunningham. He has the size to hold up. Or at the very least just start sending him on blitzes more often.
Bottom line, Hightower’s not especially needed in coverage so they should unleash him in a variety of ways to get after the quarterback.
Yes, the recurring theme here is that the Pats just need to get healthy, most importantly with Gregory and Hightower. The good news is that they seem close, and once they’re back out there it’s just a matter of them staying healthy and getting reps.
As for Pryor it might be a little pie in the sky thinking he’ll come in and be the interior presence they need, but I’m still holding out hope for it. He’s unlike any other defensive lineman they have.
A little health and experience will go a long way. The Patriots defense always improves and if these factors can all come together there’s no question in my mind they’ll be a better group than the one that fell just short of the Super Bowl last season.