Thursday, September 15, 2011 Updated: September 16, 8:36 AM ET
Pats' secondary on a mission
By Chris Forsberg ESPNBoston.com
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There were questions about the Patriots' overhauled secondary entering the 2011 campaign, and allowing Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne to pass for a career-best 416 yards on Monday did little to quell any concerns, even as the Patriots emerged with a season-opening win.
New England's defensive backs can take solace in the fact that secondaries were universally scorched in Week 1. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the league's 32 teams combined for 7,842 net passing yards -- the most in a single week in NFL history. What's more, a league-record 14 quarterbacks passed for 300-plus yards.
As attention shifts to Week 2, the Patriots' secondary is again in the spotlight, this time with some justifiably wondering what San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers and a high-powered Chargers offense is capable of when the two teams meet Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne is hit by Patriots defensive back Kyle Arrington and defensive tackle Myron Pryor during the second half at Sun Life Stadium on Monday.
But if you envision the Patriots' defensive backs quivering in their cleats, curled up in their lockers while clutching their playbooks, you'd be pretty far off. While Patriots players were sure to slather the Chargers with praise this week, members of New England's secondary went so far as to dub Sunday's challenge as "fun" and suggest that it's an opportunity to prove they're better than they showed on Monday.
"It's a great challenge," said safety James Ihedigbo. "San Diego has a high-powered offense. Just look at the stat lines, they are up there among the top-ranked [teams]. It's a good challenge that we have coming in as a defense and as a secondary. These are the games you can make a statement about how good you are in the back end of a defense by playing a big-time offense like this. We're excited for the challenge."
Somewhat overshadowed by five Dolphins players combining for 30 catches on Monday was the fact that New England's secondary actually had its bright spots. The defense as a whole tightened up around the goal line, and Patriots defensive backs were a big reason Miami squandered three red zone opportunities.
Still, Miami's trio of Brandon Marshall, Davone Bess and Anthony Fasano combined for 17 catches for 313 yards on Monday. San Diego will trot out its own vaunted trio of Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd and Antonio Gates -- and don't forget running back Mike Tolbert, who caught a team-high nine balls last week.
"You gotta just compete," said second-year cornerback Devin McCourty, acknowledging the talent the Chargers possess on offense. "We've got our hands full again, but that's what you expect in the NFL. There's more receivers now that are bigger and can run well. Every week you gotta be ready to go against top guys."
McCourty recorded the first of his seven interceptions last season by intercepting Rivers. McCourty knows the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback won't be bashful in going right back at him.
"Last year, I was a rookie and I was asked [about being challenged deep by the Chargers]," said McCourty. "I said, 'Yeah,' and they did. ... Now it's my second year and we've got [rookie] Ras-[I Dowling] out there [starting in Week 1], Kyle [Arrington] and Leigh [Bodden]. Teams are going to take their chances."
Two things to watch for in Sunday's game with regards to the Patriots' defense:
1. How much does New England blitz?
Maybe in part to protect a secondary that has struggled in coverage, the Patriots have sent extra pressure on a mere 26 percent of all drop-backs since the start of last season, the fourth-fewest blitz attempts in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And while the Patriots' pass rush thrived in Miami, it might be key to add more pressure on Rivers, even if it requires sending extra bodies.
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According to Stats & Info: Since the start of last season, with four or fewer rushers, Rivers completed 70 percent of his attempts for a league-best 8.8 yards per attempt and a plus-16 touchdown-to-interception differential. When teams send five or more rushers, Rivers' numbers drop off (57.9 completion percentage, 8 yards per attempt, plus-1 TD-to-INT differential).
Sending extra bodies will leave the Patriots' secondary exposed at times and could lead to inflated passing numbers. But, much like in Miami, it might aid the Patriots in keeping San Diego out of the end zone, which is ultimately more important than the yards allowed.
2. Get off the field
The Patriots had the worst third-down defense in the league last season, allowing conversions on 47.1 percent of third-down attempts. But even as Miami put up 488 yards in Week 1 -- the most offense New England has allowed since 1994, according to Stats & Info -- Miami converted just 2-of-14 third-down situations on Monday.
It's worth noting that San Diego posted a Week 1-best 31 first downs in a 24-17 triumph over the Minnesota Vikings. New England can't allow the Chargers' offense to move the chains that consistently. Ihedigbo said Thursday that the secondary isn't just ready for that challenge, it's eager for it.
"They've got a very talented receiving corps and a very talented offense with big playmakers like Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates," said Ihedigbo. "They can get down the field and make plays. You just have to try to do your best to neutralize them. They are talented, they are going to make plays, and they have a great quarterback in Rivers.
"We'll have our hands full on defense, so it'll be fun."
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.