Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Have the New England Patriots finally figured out the recipe to fix their defensive struggles?

Sep 17, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers (98). Photo Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

By Ian Carrano

October 24, 2017

Through the first six games of the season, the New England Patriots’ defense has struggled on the defensive side of the ball in numerous areas. Partially due to injuries, the team has been inconsistent thus far even against some weaker competition. The secondary has especially been the main source of the team’s struggles on defense, as it has allowed at least 300 yards passing to each of the team’s opponents through week 6. That streak came to an end Sunday night against the Atlanta Falcons in a Super Bowl rematch when the team limited Matt Ryan to only 233 yards passing and a touchdown, which is a good sign for a struggling secondary. It has only been one game, but against an offense with a multitude of weapons, it was impressive to see the adjustments the team made following a week surrendering 408 total yards to a much weaker New York Jets offensive group. The team may not have everything figured out on the defensive end just yet, but Sunday’s performance is certainly a step in the right direction.

Forced to play without their No.2 and No.3 corner-backs in Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe for the third straight game, the Patriots looked destined to have a tough time defending against a Falcons receiving corps lead by Julio Jones and Mohammad Sanu. That wasn’t the case Sunday night as Jonathan Jones, Johnson Bademosi, and Malcolm Butler held their own in the secondary. Bademosi, who was acquired from the Detroit Lions for a late round pick, fared well filling in for the injured Gilmore, and provided the Patriots with strong coverage on Jones when Butler was asked to defend other receivers. Jones finished with 9 receptions for 99 yards and a score, but was held in check throughout the game. His lone touchdown came in garbage time, which was well defended by Butler and nearly picked off in the end-zone. Most of his production came on the Falcon’s final drive of the night at the end of the game where Jones caught 3 receptions for 21 yards and touchdown, which is impressive considering the team’s previous struggles against opposing wide receivers.

Sanu finished with only six receptions for 65 yards, which was also a good sign for the Patriots’ secondary. With Jones facing double coverage through most of the game, Sanu was targeted more often leading to his six receptions. Facing off against a variety of Patriots corner-backs throughout the night, he was limited from his normal production; something that can be credited to the Patriots’ strong play. However, other than Sanu and Jones, the Falcons got limited production from their other weapons. Only Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy, Devont’a Freeman, and Austin Hooper got involved in the passing game, but all failed to eclipse more than 30 yards receiving. It was a quiet night in the passing game for the Falcons, primarily due to the strong play from the Patriots’ secondary.

This season, the Patriots’ run defense has allowed multiple big runs that have kept the defense on the field. The team had success against the Falcons in preventing these big runs despite facing up against two capable running backs in Tevin Coleman and Freeman. Freeman finished with 72 yards on 12 carries, but failed to reach the end-zone; something the Patriots struggled with during the Super Bowl. Although Freeman had a few good runs during the game, he struggled to get going on the ground, partially due to the team falling behind 17-0 at halftime.

Through seven games, the Patriots’ run defense has allowed 116 yards per game to their opponents. Ranked 22nd in the league in that category, the Patriots have some work to do to establish themselves as a complete defensive team. The recent play of Trey Flowers has proven to be a big part of the team’s improvement against the run. Although he is mostly known to be an effective pass rusher off the edge, Flowers has also made big plays in the backfield, which has given the Patriots an effective run-stopping option on the defensive line.

However, a big part of the team’s struggles against the run can be connected to Dont’a Hightower‘s absence to injury this season. He has only played in three games this season, which has left a big gap in the defense. As the team’s leader on defense, Hightower’s absence affected the overall chemistry of the Patriots’ defense. With lack of experience in the team’s linebacker group, teams were able to take advantage of mismatches, leading to some of the big runs. With Hightower on the field, the Patriots’ defense has proven to be much better, which is why it is crucial for the veteran to stay healthy. A large part of the team’s improvement is due to Hightower’s presence on the field, which will help in making the Patriots’ defense much more consistent than it’s been half way through the season.

The Patriots still have plenty of work to do to be considered a championship contending defense, but are trending in the right direction. Mid-way through the season, the Patriots have proven their ability to make big plays late in games, which is a crucial part in becoming a successful defense. The team is also more disciplined and will continue to improve in that category. Despite the lack of consistency this season, Sunday’s showcase has given the Patriots a blueprint of how to fix their weaknesses on defense.

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