Commentary

Pats' D must adjust to fast-break football

Yards aren't the problem; it's causing turnovers, getting red zone stops that count most

Updated: September 27, 2011, 2:51 AM ET
By Tedy Bruschi | ESPNBoston.com

We're calling an audible and switching things up for this week's Bruschi On Tap. Instead of five observations from the Patriots' loss to the Bills, we're going to answer some questions from fans (and there were plenty of them after Sunday's shocker). Here we go:

Q. Is Brady's role too large? I remember watching Drew Bledsoe taking over games, and the team going down when he had a down game. When Brady took over all of a sudden the other 52 guys started taking responsibility and the team won three Super Bowls. Now Brady is the guy that feels he has to take over the games, and it works most of the time, but despite all the talent around him, the team goes only as far as he goes. -- Alex (New York)

A. This defense was on its way on Sunday to proving it could win without Tom Brady. Getting the two interceptions early and building that 21-0 lead was huge. A defense can stop the bleeding for a struggling quarterback after one or two interceptions, but four interceptions and a pick-six, it's almost impossible for a defense to overcome, especially when the defense is also committing penalties. A bad game is one thing, but this matched Brady's career high for interceptions.

Having said that, two of those interceptions -- the interception by George Wilson on Rob Gronkowski, and the interception by Leodis McKelvin on Chad Ochocinco -- were spectacular defensive plays. You could say that was a poor route by Chad, but what I saw was McKelvin preventing Chad from getting back to the ball with his right arm. A fantastic play.

Q. Tedy, you said on WEEI a couple of weeks ago that you would have liked to see the defense win a game when Tom Brady doesn't play great. He threw for 350+ and 4 TDs but the D couldn't pick him up after some mistakes. This defense looks terrible, I could chuck for 300 yards against them. Thoughts?!?! -- Charles (Rhode Island)

A. Let's slow down a little bit. I don't know if you could throw for 300. I think the defense picked up the team at the beginning of the game, with Kyle Arrington's two interceptions. The defense helped the Pats get up 21-0. The problem as the game progressed was penalties, particularly two roughing-the-passer penalties on the long Bills drive. Those are mistakes that can't be overcome.

Q. I've been a season-ticket holder since '77 so I've seen the very bad and, of course, the very good. Comparing the 2001-05 Patriots to the present, what's the difference on the defense? Is it simply talent, or do you think Bill doesn't have the same kind of trust? It seems like the defenses you were on were trusted to blitz and run around and make plays, not so much now. Thoughts? -- Tim (Newton, Mass.)

A. A big difference I see is offensive football. Every week now, you're going up against an Indianapolis-type offense. That's different from '01-'05. The offensive football in the NFL has morphed into fast-break football. Back then, there will still plenty of teams that were of the mindset of being physical and establishing a running game. I think Bill Belichick has done a good job of adjusting to where offensive football is in the NFL. Having said that, you're going back to old school this week with the Raiders, as they pound the rock.

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
AP Photo/Gary WiepertQuarterbacks like Ryan Fitzpatrick are going to get their yards in today's NFL, but the key for the Pats' D is keeping them out of the end zone.

Q. Do the Patriots have the talent on defense to turn it around? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A. The Patriots do have the talent on defense, but I'm going to give you two areas to focus on. Offenses will move the ball, that's a league-wide issue, so focus on the red area and winning the turnover battle. If the Patriots are in the top half of the league in those two categories, this defense will be just fine.

Q. Tedy, to your point on how the offenses now are more fast-break style and built like the Colts: Do you see the Pats running the ball more and playing more balanced to combat that? -- Tim (Boston)

A. No, I see the Patriots as one of the fast-break teams. I know they are a game plan team and will come out with different groupings on a week to week basis, but I don't see them changing much. On the first scoring drive, they attempted to run the ball four or five times. This team is going to roll with what works. If those running plays had more success, I'm sure they would have exploited that more during the game.

Q. Everyone can point their fingers at one person, one play, one mistake. But to me it comes down to team mental toughness and that je ne sais qua of one individual (much like you ... no ego stroking, I promise) in the locker room to get the group going. Who needs to step up and be this person to get the Pats on the right track again? -- Mare (South Carolina)

A. As I'm sitting in my office now, re-watching this game over and over, I don't see one person who can fix this problem, unless it's Belichick -- you look to the head coach to find answers. Here it is -- you throw four interceptions, one for a touchdown, and are called for multiple penalties, one a 32-yard pass-interference penalty that sets up a touchdown, that's how you lose the game. That's not just one person. That's an entire team. There is no single individual who is the answer. Every player has to look to himself to improve, and that's what I think they'll do.

Q. How big was it missing Albert Haynesworth on Sunday? Pressure on Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was just not there. -- Karl (Under the umbrella)

A. Pressure would have helped, but Fitzpatrick gets rid of the ball so quickly that pressure sometimes doesn't matter. You may have just seen the birth of a new great quarterback in the NFL. I'm not saying Fitzpatrick is anywhere near Brady or Aaron Rodgers, but there is something about this guy that I really like.

Q. A little bit of a chicken or the egg question, but what do you think is the biggest problem with this defense. Is it the lack of pass rush making the secondary work too hard, or would you put more blame on coverage? I know it's a bit of both, just wondering your thoughts. -- Tim (Newton, Mass.)

A. Right now, I'm going to say it's a combination of mental errors and execution. Mental errors because of the penalties and the miscommunication in the red area (i.e. Scott Chandler's easy touchdown). And execution with the Patriots' defensive backs, who are losing the battle with WRs when the ball is in the air. To be in position is one thing, but to make a play on the ball is another.

Q. Is there any way that this defense can become good? If they are getting beaten 1 on 1 across the board, is there any scheme that can make them improve and if so what? -- Fletch (New Hampshire)

A. I don't have a problem with the schemes. Right now, this is primarily a man-to-man defense. They have the athletes that they feel can cover. Winning and losing the battle for the ball can come in bunches. There can easily be a string of two or three games in which you lose those battles, and all of a sudden, it will change and you will see the Patriots flipping that trend and making big plays on defense. Last year, they got hot in the INT department. That can still happen.

Q. Give some credit to the Bills. -- Mike (Buffalo, N.Y.)

A. Mike, I did not anticipate a victory for the Bills. I actually predicted a 14-point win for the Patriots. But this division just got a lot tougher. There is no clear favorite, with the way the Jets played at Oakland. I believe it is realistic that the Bills will compete for this division. By the way, I've been a huge Fred Jackson fan for years.

Q. Based on your experience as a player, and considering that each season is an entity unto itself, did you experience seasons where it was understood that one side of the ball (offense or defense) needed a bit more "in-season" experience before it might hit its stride, and that in the interim the "other" side might have to carry the day, hopefully accumulating wins while the other side is flattening the learning curve issues, until the other side of the ball pulls it together. It seems that the offense may be more in-synch to start this season and may, in fact, get even better, as Sebastian Vollmer and Aaron Hernandez get healthy. -- George (Warwick, R.I.)

A. In the 2008 season, when Tom Brady went down and Matt Cassel came in, the defense knew that for us to have a winning record we had to play well to give Cassel time to develop.

Q. Do you think the Pats are turning into the Colts? All offense and no defense. -- Ted (Leominster, Mass.)

A. That's a good question. I would say yes if there was more of a pass rush, because then I would say they are built to play from ahead. That's what the Colts are, with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis teeing off and going after the quarterback. This team doesn't have a Freeney or a Mathis.

Q. Why the insistence on running BenJarvus Green-Ellis for the usual 2-yard gain when Stevan Ridley is a better option? More speed, vision and cutting ability. -- John (Boston)

A. I disagree that Ridley is a better option right now. I think he is a good changeup and promising young back. But I'd want Green-Ellis carrying the load. Remember, Ridley is a rookie, and although he looked good in the preseason, Green-Ellis has proven he can do it on a regular basis.

Q. I see this loss as comparable to Cleveland last year. What will the team do to turn this into a positive for the rest of the year, especially this week against a very tough Raiders team? -- Tony (Saugus, Mass.)

A. I don't see it the same way in terms of this loss. In Cleveland, I thought the Patriots were getting overconfident and underestimated the Browns and didn't come out with their best stuff. This was a division game against an opponent that knew them very well, and who they knew well. They came out strong, based on the 21-0 lead they built. It's just that these aren't the old Buffalo Bills anymore. They showed that on Sunday.

Q. Should I just forget about this game, and assume that the ball just didn't bounce the Patriots' way? I still think the D is not as bad as people think. Just look around the league, the lockout has affected every team's defense. -- Al (Mission Hill)

A. Don't forget about this game. Remember it, just like the Patriots will. You have to remember it because the Patriots can be beaten on any Sunday. When you throw four interceptions and have as many penalties as they did, you have to anticipate defeat. They made similar type of mistakes when they lost to the Jets in the playoffs also.

Q. What are other teams seeing in Devin McCourty that they didn't see last year? He is getting thrown at relentlessly. -- Tony (Saugus)

A. I still believe McCourty is a Pro Bowl corner, but he's had a tough stretch the first three games of the season, facing Brandon Marshall, Vincent Jackson and Stevie Johnson. We all know the quality of receiver that Marshall and Jackson are, but Stevie Johnson is a very underrated talent. On his touchdown reception over McCourty, he put a move on him that left McCourty standing still. He faked inside, McCourty bit on the inside route, and then he ran a go route. It was one of the better routes I've seen this year.

Q. Tedy, you are an inspiration to all Filipino-Americans. Have you visited the Philippines and any plans to do so in the future? -- Hernando (Santa Ana)

A. Some of my family members have visited, but I've never been. I'm very proud of my heritage. My mother taught my wife to make Lumpia.

Q. Where is the tough-minded and physical defense from when you were a part of it? It's impressive watching a tough defense like the Steelers and Ravens. What do the Pats need to do to become (or get back to) that kind of defense? -- Mike (San Diego)

A. I know those guys on the defensive side of the ball. They're tough. Don't get it in your head that these guys aren't tough and physical. One discouraging thing I saw was that the Bills had success running the ball. I'd like to see that defense be more stout up the middle, especially with the Raiders the next opponent.

Q. Tedy, based on the performance of Ochocinco, and Taylor Price's inability to stay healthy, wouldn't it make sense for the Pats to bring back Randy Moss? It seems like he wants to be here and outside of Wes Welker and Deion Branch, we don't have a reliable option at WR (unless you include Hernandez and Gronk). -- Shaun (Boston)

A. I don't even know if Randy Moss has been working out. I think we all remember the success Randy had here, and I understand why you're thinking about him, but I think this week the biggest loss was Aaron Hernandez. This team has become reliant on that multiple TE set, and to have to switch from that from one week to the next can be a difficult transition to make.

Q. What is your thought on the pass interference call on Sergio Brown in the end zone Sunday? To me, it looked like a case for offensive pass interference just as much as defensive PI. Thought it would be a non-call. -- David (Denver)

A. Brown's back was to the ball and he wasn't looking to the ball. David Nelson did a good job showing the official that he was making an effort for the ball. The defensive back has to show the official he is making an effort for the ball, and not just shielding the receiver. If he had turned his head, it might have been different.

Q. How do you evaluate current safety position? Josh Barrett missed very important tackle on Fred Jackson. Any thoughts? -- Vikram (Boston)

A. I'm still wondering how Fred Jackson was so wide open. Was it a communication breakdown? Or did Barrett really have him from the safety position? If so, you just have to make that tackle. If there was a communication problem, which is what I couldn't see from the TV copy, that would be a bigger problem. Freddie Jackson caught the ball and ran 10-15 yards until there was another defender, and that was a problem in and of itself.

Q. Any more thoughts on Ocho's performance. He caused one interception and dropped a beautiful pass from Brady. -- Vikram (Boston)

A. You've got to catch that ball. Dropping that ball is inexcusable. Chad knows that. On the interception, could that route have been better? Maybe, but I see that as a spectacular defensive play.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th-anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

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