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Has the Patriots Defense Been a Mirage?

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It was a game to forget for the Patriots, as many of their road games have been this season. The Patriots struggled in all facets of the game and it showed with a 38-17 blowout. With the loss to the Saints, the Patriots now fall to 7-4 on the season and 1-4 on the road. AsĀ  teams get ready for the stretch run, the Patriots stand in fourth place in the AFC and have yet to validate their season with a signature win. They are going to need some help from both San Diego and Cincinnati if they want any chance to attain that elusive playoff bye week. Many people are saying that this is the end of a dynasty, but I think that’s a bit of an overreaction considering that our defense is in a transition period.

Anyways, after Monday night’s beating the question must be raised: Has this Patriots defense been a mirage? Before this week the defense was doing very well by my standards, but with all the mistakes and missed tackles it leads us to wonder which defense we are going to see going forward. My five thoughts:

(Note: A big thank you goes to Tiger Woods for distracting the media for two days so we don’t have to listen about why the Patriots will not win the Super Bowl this year.)

1. Big plays, big problems

A couple of numbers for you. Before Monday night, the Patriots had let up just one play over 40 yards. They also had let up no more than two offensive plays over 20 yards in a single game. Against the Saints, the Patriots’ defense let up two plays over 40 yards and eight plays over 20 yards. As a matter of fact, Drew Brees averaged 20.6 yards per completion (18 for 371 yards), but you don’t have to be a math wiz to know that Drew Brees had all the time in the world to throw the ball to wide open receivers thanks to blown coverages.

2. Seven used to be the lucky number

The Patriots’ lack of front seven is what sets this defense apart from now and its dominance earlier this decade. Those great defenses would create pressure on opposing quarterbacks which would force them into mistakes. Remember how the Patriots could win championships with cornerbacks like Earthwind Moreland and Randall Gay? It was because the front seven made them look better than they actually were. Now the team is without many of the players that helped make the defense so great. Players like Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Roosevelt Colvin and Rodney Harrison. All of these guys were an integral part of the defense and it’s clear that the Patriots are trying to rebuild what they once had.

Brandon Meriweather is good, but he’s still only in his third year as a pro so you will see him make mistakes (like Monday’s blown coverage) and Jerod Mayo is only in his second year, but already wearing the green dot on his helmet. The Patriots already have a solid front three (Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork and Jarvis Green/Tully Banta-Cain) so they are just a couple of pieces from becoming a dominant force again.

3. Who’s calling the offense?

So far this season, the offense has put up 27.9 points per game (4th in the NFL), converted on 44.4 percent of third downs (7th in the NFL) and gained 411.5 yards per game (2nd in the NFL). Therefore, you may wonder why I’m calling our offense into question. Could it be that our offense ranks 22nd in the NFL in red zone offense? Or maybe that Ben Watson has just 22 catches and 31 targets this season? How about Laurence Maroney, who was the most effective player on offense in the first half on Monday night, saw the field a grand total of three times in the second half. I am not sure who is in charge of the offensive play calling, but whether it’s Bill Belichick or someone else, they need to stick with what’s working. I believe they abandoned the run too early on Monday night and the ignoring of the tight end position has really hurt the team in the short field as they have scored a touchdown in just 47.9 percent of their red zone trips. A team that gains 411 yards per game on offense should not have that much difficulty punching the ball in the end zone.

4. What constitutes a successful season for the 2009 Patriots?

Monday night’s loss was a reality check for Patriots fans and it got me thinking about what would satisfy me with this team. It’s a tough question to answer because anytime you have a quarterback like Tom Brady on your team you feel like there’s always a way to win, but it’s been shown that even the best quarterbacks cannot win without help from all eleven players on the field. Despite the recent defensive struggles, I do think this team should get to the AFC Championship game, but would I be disappointed if they didn’t make the Super Bowl? This team is no longer the powerhouse that we saw in 2003-04 when we would just pressure teams into mistakes. That was our mantra. You always knew opposing quarterbacks were going to have a tough time against our defense because while they were trying to decipher Belichick’s crazy schemes, they were being chased by over-sized linebackers. That hasn’t been the case these last couple of years, which is why I don’t think it’s fair to set expectations that high given that the team is in a transition period.

5. It’s time to recognize Drew Brees as one of the elite

For a couple of years now Drew Brees has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Since 2004 he hasn’t missed a start due to injury (he missed the last game in 2004 because the team wasn’t playing for anything) and has averaged 4,129 yards, 27.8 touchdowns and 13.6 interceptions, all while compiling a QB rating of 94.6. This season he is on pace to finish with 4,534 yards, 39 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He has been an elite fantasy football quarterback for years now, but I feel like he hasn’t received the same respect in the “real” football world. Well, it’s time to put him up there with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady because even though his teams haven’t won as much as the Colts or Patriots, he has not been the problem.

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