Pats' secondary a primary concern
Despite problems, unit seems to have personnel, ability to turn mistakes around
On the surface, it looked bad in the New England Patriots' secondary on Sunday.
A career-best passing effort allowed to a rookie quarterback.
A 46-yard touchdown pass surrendered with less than two minutes to play that erased a six-point lead.
A rookie, playing in just his second professional game, taking over for a veteran cornerback who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions a season ago.
But before we write this group off entirely, let's address some context.
By the time the football reached the arms of Seahawks wide receiver Sidney Rice on his game-winning score, the Patriots' duo of safeties consisted of a player who was primarily a cornerback in college, Tavon Wilson, and another who logged a total of three defensive snaps during his final season at Ohio State, Nate Ebner.
Gone from the game was regular starter and secondary linchpin Patrick Chung (with an apparent shoulder injury), as well as fellow starter Steve Gregory, who didn't even make the trip to Seattle as he continues to nurse a hip injury.
Sterling Moore, a secondary player with platoon abilities between cornerback and safety, may have been dealing with an injury issue as well, as he remained on the sideline during the closing minutes.
It wasn't quite being relegated to playing Shawn Mayer at safety in the closing moments of Super Bowl XXXVIII, but the Patriots' personnel was nonetheless thin during a critical moment of the game.
And it was during that critical moment that memories of the Patriots' historically poor 2011 secondary were rekindled, as Rice coasted past Wilson for an all-too-easy score.
Again, some context.
The Patriots called for a Cover 2 defense on what amounted to their final defensive play of consequence on Sunday, designed specifically to prevent vertical passes down the field.
It was, for all intents and purposes, an ideal counter to what Seattle offered on the play: a simple route concept, featuring two receivers, one of whom was Rice on a double-move route that sent him jetting toward the goalpost on Wilson's side of the field. He was the only threat to Wilson on the play, and on paper, one that Wilson should have easily accounted for.
But the golden rule for Cover 2 defense is to not be beaten over the top; everything should stay in front of the safety. Wilson violated the rule, taking the bait on play-action and appearing to be caught flat-footed for a moment too long, opening the way for Rice to expose him.
The salient miscue has many asking the question again: What's up with the Patriots' secondary?
The group is allowing 289 passing yards per game, a total that is better than just four other teams in the NFL. It's not far off from the 294 yards per game that New England allowed a season ago, when secondary issues were widespread.
It's also on pace to surrender 37 touchdowns through the air this season, up from 26 in 2011. Add into that equation that only three teams have allowed a higher opposing Total QBR rating than the Patriots' average of 76.7, and the numbers suggest another ugly picture in 2012.
But looking beyond the numbers, the key question is whether the Patriots have the personnel, both along their front-line group and in their secondary depth, to turn things around and be competitive for the balance of the season.
McCourty and Arrington each have logged seven-interception seasons, but both have looked off-track during portions of 2012, with Arrington taking a seat on Sunday in favor of Dennard after early-game woes.
In evaluating game tape from this season, their problem has not been a lack of ability to be in position to make plays on the football, it's been their inability to finish plays. Close doesn't count in pass coverage, and McCourty and Arrington have been close too often.
The performance from the safety group appears to be shakier. Although a pivotal member of the defense, Chung has had moments of being out of position in the deep portion of the field. Too many times he's been one step too late.
Gregory, who has missed consecutive games, has had his athletic limitations exposed at times, as was the case on a long score from Bills wide receiver Donald Jones in Week 4.
Sunday's blunder notwithstanding, Wilson has been a productive member of the secondary, although he's best suited as a reserve, sub-defense player. He's better moving forward than reacting in his backward movements, as was clear on Sunday.
Add it all up, and one must ask: Is it enough?
Or perhaps, can it become enough going forward?
The cornerbacks have shown they can do the job. But isolated performances of success aren't enough. The unit needs a consistent, coherent effort from more than one player throughout the course of a game.
The safeties must show they can do enough to piece the group together. That starts by limiting big plays. The deficiencies are what they are, but big plays are avoidable with discipline.
The Patriots do not have a game-changer in the secondary; they don't even have a bona fide playmaker.
They do have a stout run defense in front of them that can make an opposing offense one-dimensional and a potent offense on their own side that can score points and play catch-up as well as anyone.
The Patriots' secondary doesn't have to be elite; it just has to be good enough. Through six games, it hasn't been.
But a careful assessment of the personnel and its limitations suggests that the secondary has what it takes to be better, and better must be good enough in order for the Patriots to succeed when it matters most.
It starts with consistency and discipline.
Field Yates covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.