Defending the defense?



Yates By Field Yates

When assessing how the Patriots' defense needs to perform for the balance of 2012 in order for the team to make a deep run into the playoffs, the question should be: Can this group be just good enough?

With an offense led by Tom Brady that is set to add tight end Aaron Hernandez at some point down the stretch, New England is still likely to rack up the points in bunches.

The point is, the Patriots' defense just needs to be good enough, not outstanding. And despite recent woes, the defense still can be good enough to make a run all the way to Super Bowl XLVII.

The addition of cornerback Aqib Talib should pay immediate dividends, as it provides the Patriots with the flexibility to mix up coverages in the secondary. Talib has the talent to play on an island, and the Patriots have historically been unafraid to play man coverage in the high red zone, where Talib should really help.

In addition, although the secondary surrendered more than 300 yards passing yet again in Week 10, cornerback-turned-safety Devin McCourty has helped to bottle-cap the defense and minimize big plays. If an offense is going to beat the Patriots, it may have to do so with deliberate, move-the-chains drives, not home run plays.

The Patriots are counting on the fact that somewhere along the line, their opponent is going to make a mistake, and the defense will be there to capitalize. The Patriots lead the AFC with 23 takeaways (five more than the second-best) and turnover differential with a plus-16 mark (six more than No. 2).

And while rookie defensive end Chandler Jones may have been slowed on Sunday, the Patriots have found two complementary pass-rushers in Jermaine Cunningham and rookie Justin Francis. An improved pass rush works in concert with an improved secondary, and look for both Cunningham and Francis to play important snaps down the stretch.

The Patriots won't be confused with an elite defense in 2012, but they will be good enough when it counts.


Reiss By Mike Reiss

Of all the stories that ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi has told of his time with the New England Patriots, one that resonates is about when the team was in the middle of a rough stretch and players felt it was only a matter of time until they started playing winning football again.

That's when Bill Belichick would utter the following words: "Based on what?!?"

The point was that players couldn't just expect it to happen; they had to go out and make it happen. Up to that point, they hadn't.

So based on what we've seen from the 2012 team, can anyone decisively say this defensive unit will be good enough to win when it counts in the playoffs?

I can't.

What I see is a unit that reminds me of the 2010 defense. That was the year the 14-2 Patriots led the NFL in takeaways (38) and turnover differential (plus-28), but also finished last on third down, 30th in passing yards allowed per game, and 30th in first downs allowed.

We all remember what happened in the playoffs: The top-seeded Patriots had their turnover run end, and the result was a painful loss to the New York Jets, one that now serves as a reminder that a defense has to be built on more than just turnovers. If it isn't, it's like building a house on a shaky foundation.

This is what concerns me most about the 2012 Patriots defense, which has run into many of the same problems that the 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008 defenses did as well: the pass rush is inconsistent, extra pressure is used infrequently and the coverage in the secondary has been shaky at best. It often makes average quarterbacks look like All-Pros. This has been a consistent issue, even as the Patriots keep winning.

The defense does hit hard, and it does seem to have a knack for creating the timely turnover. Those are good qualities to have, but as 2010 showed us, it's hard to play championship football if that's what you are relying on.

For those who say otherwise and believe this is a defense that could win a championship, we ask one question: Based on what?