Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Arrow pointing up for Patriots' defense
By Matt Williamson
What was the Patriots' biggest weakness in 2010? Pass defense.
That won't be the case in 2011.
First off, let’s start with the cover guys. I am not entirely sold on the safeties, and the depth at this position in particular is a concern. But overall, you could do worse than Brandon Meriweather, Pat Chung and James Sanders. Still, I do think this is the weakest position now on New England’s defense.
The Patriots needs Leigh Bodden to return from the injuires that hampered his 2010 season.
The cornerback play should be vastly improved, though. First off, Leigh Bodden returns from injury. If he returns to his 2009 form, Bodden is an above-average starting corner who can excel in many different schemes. Last year’s first-round pick, Devin McCourty, would have been a legitimate candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2010 -- if it weren't for Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, that is. As great as McCourty was last season, expecting improvement in his second season seems logical as well.
The Patriots also used an early second-round pick this year on Ras-I Dowling. Dowling would have been a first-round pick if not for injuries. He has a lot of ability, and along with Bodden and McCourty, gives the Patriots excellent size at corner.
In addition to the latest two early round picks, New England has a slew of younger corners in Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite. Collectively, this group has been underwhelming, but expecting improvement from these young cover men also doesn’t seem far-fetched. Even if just one of the three steps up, New England will be stacked at the position, which will allow Bill Belichick to be even more creative with his sub-package personnel. It should be noted, though, that it doesn’t yet appear Dowling is back to full health, which could stunt his growth and open the door for one of these three for early playing time.
Now, let’s discuss the pass rush, which like the coverage, should be improved. There has been a great deal of speculation that New England will be switching to more base 4-3 looks. Due to the team’s roster moves this offseason, that seems entirely likely. But I also expect Belichick to utilize many different looks from his front seven, changing on a week-to-week basis depending on the Patriots’ opponent.
If nothing else, the addition of Albert Haynesworth will pay dividends in this area. He can really get after the passer. Whether it is from a defensive end or nose tackle position in the 3-4 or as a 3-technique in the 4-3, Haynesworth will wreak havoc on quarterbacks. During his time in Tennessee, Haynesworth was used all over the defensive line, including as an outside edge rusher.
Haynesworth should pair with another newcomer, Shaun Ellis, as one of the most potent interior pass-rushing forces in the league on clear passing downs. Ellis will also contribute in the pursuit of quarterbacks from an end spot in New England’s odd front. The presence of both these players -- along with several incumbents -- should allow the Patriots to keep Haynesworth and Ellis quite fresh.
Off the edge, Jermaine Cunningham did some good things as a rookie and could be poised for a substantial step forward as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 or as a designated pass-rusher on throwing downs. He also could play some end when the Patriots use an even front. Andre Carter has consistently performed poorly when asked to move to outside linebacker in a 3-4, but he is well suited for defensive end in the 4-3. Belichick surely recognizes this and should use him accordingly.
The foursome of Haynesworth, Ellis, Cunningham and Carter as a pass-rushing front on passing downs is a vast improvement from a season ago. Mark Anderson, another guy who is much better suited for end in the 4-3, could also factor in, especially on early downs.
To say that New England has been aggressive to cure what ailed it in 2010 is a massive understatement. I fully expect this aggression to pay off in a big way.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.