Commentary

Patriots defense still a concern

Some critical stops with game on the line can't mask unit's deficiencies

Updated: October 22, 2012, 1:19 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There are real concerns with the New England Patriots' defense, particularly in the secondary. It's impossible not to come to that conclusion after the team's 29-26 overtime victory over the New York Jets on Sunday at Gillette Stadium -- another game, another quarterback putting up season-high stats for passing yards.

For long stretches of Sunday's game, the Patriots were sliced up by quarterback Mark Sanchez, so when the unit was called on to deliver two big game-saving stops -- at the end of the fourth quarter and then in overtime -- you can admit it. You didn't have much confidence. Why would you?

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To their credit, the defense did what it couldn't last week in Seattle: It came through in the critical situations -- first keeping the game within reach, then closing it out.

Thus, it's understandable that there was a striking contrast of emotions after this one. For sure, there is concern about the long-term health of the defense, a unit that can be maddeningly frustrating to watch as it makes pedestrian quarterbacks look like All-Pros. Yet the solid late-game work, highlighted by defensive end Rob Ninkovich's strip sack on the final play of overtime, can't be overlooked.

"If you want to win games, you've got to make plays, and that's a great example of a game-winning play," quarterback Tom Brady said.

So let's start with that positive, and the scene at Ninkovich's locker about 30 minutes after the too-close-for-comfort victory. Surrounded by a large crowd of reporters, he reached into his locker, pulled out the football that he had jarred from Sanchez's grasp, and said, "I'm keeping this one."

Ninkovich had not only forced the fumble to end the game, but he recovered it too. He flipped it to fellow linebacker Niko Koutouvides, asking him to put it in his locker so he'd have something tangible to remember about a play that rates among the biggest in his seven-year NFL career.

"Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games," said Ninkovich, who was reminded by coaches that he seemed to have some of his biggest against the Jets (two interceptions in one game last season). "I'm just trying to do that."

Arguably no one on the defense has made more in recent weeks, and this one came on second-and-10 from the Jets 40-yard line. The Patriots led 29-26 after Stephen Gostkowski's 48-yard field goal on the Patriots' opening possession of the extra session, and under the NFL's recently changed overtime rules, the defense could end the game with a stop.

Ninkovich rushed off the left edge, gaining an angle on right tackle Austin Howard. Fellow end Jermaine Cunningham also had beaten his man, right guard Brandon Moore, to the inside.

[+] EnlargeRob Ninkovich
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaRob Ninkovich ended Sunday's game with a sack and fumble recovery.

"That shortened the corner for me," Ninkovich said, crediting Cunningham's effort for setting him up. "I was able to get around [Howard] and I saw Jermaine on his legs trying to get [Sanchez] down, so I just knocked the ball, knocked him down and picked up the ball."

Sanchez, reacting to Cunningham, was caught by surprise by Ninkovich's sudden arrival.

"We got pressure inside and I didn't feel Ninkovich on the outside," said Sanchez, who had been un-Sanchez-like in going 28-of-41 for 328 yards against the Patriots' accommodating secondary and inconsistent pass rush. "He came in and made a great play when I was trying to get rid of the ball. It's too bad when you don't see that guy coming."

"Cunningham coming up the middle and Rob coming outside, they put that rush together," Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork added. "We always say when you have a one-on-one, you have to make it work [and] I think those guys did a hell of a job that play to make it work."

While that play was the closer that the defense couldn't deliver in a gut-wrenching 24-23 loss to the Seahawks on Oct. 14, it wasn't the only time the unit rose up on Sunday.

In a stunning turn, the Jets, who had just tied the game at 23, had a chance to win it in regulation when they forced a Devin McCourty fumble on the ensuing kickoff return with 2:01 remaining.

That set them up at the Patriots' 18-yard line. Convert one first down, make the Patriots burn their three timeouts, and the Jets were in position to run the clock down and set up a short game-winning field goal.

"It was a big stop for us defensively to hold them to a field goal and be able to stay in the game," noted Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose unit was stout on runs by Tim Tebow (2 yards) and Joe McKnight (1 yard) before Sanchez was sacked for a 10-yard loss by rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

So give them their due, but now that we've done that, can we also address some major concerns?

Cornerbacks haven't been consistently competitive in coverage. The safety spot has been a revolving door because of injuries. The pass rush doesn't regularly generate pressure when sending the standard four rushers. And even the normally reliable tackling got away from them at times against the Jets.

Playing without starting safeties Steve Gregory (hip) and Patrick Chung (shoulder), the Patriots shuffled things around, moving cornerback Devin McCourty to safety and inserting rookie Alfonzo Dennard at left cornerback. Belichick felt that secured the back end better than it has been in recent weeks, but Sanchez still had little trouble slicing them up, whether they played zone or man.

It could have been even worse if not for some costly drops by the Jets, and one ridiculously underthrown second-quarter pass by Sanchez that was intercepted by Dennard on one of the few plays in which Sanchez looked like the quarterback everyone expected to see.

Can things get better for the Patriots' defense? If they can, why haven't we seen even the slightest signs that they actually may?

They are fair questions to ask, capturing the back-and-forth emotions following a victory that in some ways didn't feel like one.

The Patriots' defense delivered in the critical moments Sunday. Give the unit credit for that.

But at the same time, the issues surrounding the D are big and don't seem to be going away. With that naturally comes concern.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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