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Sunday, February 26, 2012
Patriots weigh risk, reward

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- After one of his pass attempts in Super Bowl XLVI was batted down at the line of scrimmage by athletic, rangy New York Giants defensive lineman Jason Pierre-Paul, frustrated New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said it was like trying to throw in a forest.

Jason Pierre-Paul
Tom Brady said playing against Jason Pierre-Paul and the Giants was like trying to pass in a forest.

The words still resonate. His reaction captured by NFL Films' "Sound Fx" series, Brady couldn't help but be impressed with the long arms of Pierre-Paul and the Giants' other disruptive linemen who were making life so challenging for him at times. Brady has carved up his fair share of defenses over the years, but this was a case where the Giants' athleticism was dictating play.

Now flip the script. In recent years, how many times can one say the same thing about the Patriots' defense?

Not too often, which is something to keep in mind as Bill Belichick analyzes what needs to be done to improve his squad this offseason -- through the draft, free agency and possibly trades.

The defense, while improved as the season went on, is not a feared unit around the NFL. Opposing quarterbacks seldom, if ever, feel like they're throwing into a forest.

The thought came to mind when listening to Giants general manager Jerry Reese, speaking at the NFL combine, revisit his decision-making process with the selection of Pierre-Paul in the first round of the 2010 draft. Pierre-Paul, now a budding star, was considered a risky pick by many when the Giants nabbed him 15th overall.

Consider this scouting report from one respected draft analyst: "He has too many red flags for a wise drafting decision-maker to pull the trigger expecting anything more than the raw developmental pass rusher that he is. Very unrefined and unproven. Has first-round athletic traits that likely will fool a team into over-drafting him in the top 15. Has big-time boom-or-bust potential."

Reese, however, saw it differently.

"We just thought that he was an elite athlete," he recalled. "His height, weight, speed were just off the charts. We thought we weren't taking that big of a risk to draft a young man like him. He hasn't really yet scratched the surface yet, we don't think, to what he can be. We guessed right."

Not every elite athlete turns out to be a disruptive difference-maker like Pierre-Paul, but maybe there is a takeaway for Belichick & Co. when revisiting how it unfolded for the Giants. The Patriots need more athletes on D, particularly in the front seven, and often times the quickest way to add some of the highest-impact players is to be willing to assume more risk than normally is desired. The player might not have a rock-solid fit in your system, but based on athleticism alone, there can be creative ways to unleash him on the opposition.

That's why Pierre-Paul, who had only started half a college football season, lasted to the 15th pick in 2010. It's why the Giants are now reaping the tremendous benefits.

One theme that was echoed by many head coaches and personnel executives over the past few days at the NFL combine is how football has changed in recent years. More passing means the game is being played more in space on defense. Some teams are in their sub defense, with five or six defensive backs on the field, almost 70 percent of the time.

This places an added premium on athletes up front who can help disrupt the opposing offense through pressure.

"You saw the team that won the Super Bowl this year and the way that they rotated their defensive line," noted Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith. "It's not always necessarily the sacks that are produced. It's the pressure that's put on the quarterback and getting him uncomfortable. The pass rush is very important [to help you] win on third down. Then you've got to be able to have guys that can match up with the talented wide receivers and tight ends that are playing in this league right now."

The Patriots could use help in both areas, but when it comes to the pressure-producers, this is a year where need seems to match up with opportunity for New England. Director of player personnel Nick Caserio said Thursday that the front seven is one of the strongest areas in this draft.

Here's a key stat to remember as the Patriots' offseason plans ultimately unfold: They were 28th in the NFL in third-down defense, with opponents converting 43 percent of the time.

In Atlanta, one of the first conversations Smith had with new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan centered on the importance of that type of stat.

"You've got to play to get them to third down," Smith relayed. "That's when, as a defensive coach, it really becomes fun. You've got to get them into those third-down situations and that's when you get into situational football. That's where the game is really played."

Along those lines, there was a telling media exchange at the combine with Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith. When asked if there was anything he could take from the way the playoffs unfolded in the 2011 season, he said it was a reminder that teams still have to play good defense and be able to run the football when it counts to complement the passing game. Smith pointed out that three of the final four teams had that formula.

He didn't say which team he was leaving out. He didn't have to.

So how might the Patriots reach that point?

Adding an elite athlete in this year's draft, one who plays in the front seven, would be a good start.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.