Patriots First Half Scouting – Defense
It’s time for part two of the scouting of the Patriots performance in the first half of the season. Check out the offensive notes here. If you have not read the first part yet, we will go through the position groups and examine the good, the bad and what needs to be improved in the back end of the season.
With Jabaal Sheard limited through injury and Rob Ninkovich absent through suspension, free agent signing Chris Long stepped up in the early games to carry the load. He along with Trey Flowers were forced to hold up under a heavy workload until their teammates were able to resume regular duties.
Whether you loved or hated Chandler Jones, he provided a pass rushing threat in the first half of the season during his Patriots career. The defensive ends have not stepped up in his absence and have failed to generate any sort of consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. On top of that there have been several occasions where the players have lost containment on the edge of a run play.
It may seem simplistic but overall everything these guys do; they need to do it better. As players such as Sheard and Ninkovich round their way into game shape, they will be able to produce at a more consistent level and take some of the pressure off the aging veteran Long.
Having come to the Patriots with concerns over his work ethic, Alan Branch has been one of the standout performers on the team this year. He has proven to be a surprisingly reliable player alongside Malcom Brown. The cast of backups such as Anthony Johnson and Woodrow Hamilton have even found a way to pitch in from time to time.
As good as these players have been from time to time, their overall consistency has let them down. Much like the defensive ends, the pass rush has not been up to the expected standard although their lack of production can be attributed to the system which Belichick plays.
Over the second half of the season the entire group needs to find a way to get better in their specific role.
Any questions about who is seen as the leader of this defensive unit were answered with the trade of Jamie Collins last week. Despite his inconsistencies, his game against the Texans remains one of the best individual defensive performances of the season. After recovering from an early injury, Dont’a Hightower returned to the team and has made an impact in most games including some big momentum shifting sacks.
As the lead off in the good, Collins also deserves to be the lead off mention in the bad column as he has had some high profile errors throughout the first eight games. He is not alone however as players such as Shea McLellin have been horrendously out of position from time to time. There are serious questions about the depth on the team behind Hightower who has the tendency to get injured.
First and foremost, the success of this group will depend on the ability of Hightower to stay on the field. If he can do that, he will be able to direct the defensive unit into the right alignment and try to minimize the errors of the other players. Having been acquired in late August, Barkevious Mingo could be in line for an extended role as somebody will have to take over Collins’s snaps.
After battling an injury in the early part of the season, Malcolm Butler has begun to return to top form where he is a solid first corner that can be matched up with a team’s best receiver. It would be a big stretch to put him in the same class as Richard Sherman or Patrick Peterson, but he is entrenched in the tier below them as somebody the Patriots would want to keep.
Looking at the depth chart below Butler, things are less encouraging as each player has shown some sort of significant flaws which make fans question their playing time. Logan Ryan found himself benched after being repeatedly targeted by opposing quarterbacks (for which PFF probably gave him a very high grade for getting beaten). Rookie second round pick Cyrus Jones has gone from the presumptive nickel back to being a gameday inactive as he tries to get his head around the NFL game. Eric Rowe had some good plays against Cincinnati which saw his playing time increase however he has shown diminishing returns as his snaps increase.
While none of the options may seem overly appealing to the fans or coaching staff, a clear playing order will need to be established over the next eight weeks for better or worse. Ryan is the likely second corner while the nickel role will be filled by either Rowe, Justin Coleman or Jones based on the opposing team’s receivers.
The two starting safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung have been two of the better defenders for the Patriots defensive unit so far. Beyond them Duron Harmon has been deployed as a nickel back on occasion to allow Chung to roam in the box.
Surprisingly, the safety play has not had a whole lot of negatives to it so far. When given the task of playing over the top to prevent a big play they have done what is asked of them.
McCourty is one of the defenders on the Patriots that needs to stay healthy to try and improve the overall performance of the unit as the playoffs get closer.