The Patriots’ Defense Is What We Should Really Worry About

Tom Brady will only be out for four games at the most; Darrelle Revis won't be here for the full 16.

All this talk about slightly deflated footballs has distracted us from the real concern with the Patriots heading into this season: their pass defense might be awful.

Now, any sports writer who critically analyzes a preseason football game should be obligated to include a caveat that says he is probably—if not certainly—jumping to conclusions. There are still a lot of games to be played, 16 of which actually count.

But the context surrounding the secondary’s lousy performance in the Patriots’ 26-24 win over the Saints Saturday is important to recognize. Thanks to the free agency departures of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington, this is a new-look group with relatively unproven players. The only track record to fall back on is Bill Belichick’s history of developing cornerbacks and safeties, which leaves a lot to be desired.

The Patriots didn’t have the personnel Saturday night to match up with the Saints. Safety Devin McCourty, whom the club re-signed this spring, looked woefully out of place back at corner. He allowed Brandin Cooks to race by him and safety Duron Harmon for a 45-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, and was burned a couple of more times as well.

After the game, McCourty did something Patriots players seldom do: he bluntly assessed his performance to the media.

“I hope it’s not permanent,” McCourty said about his position change, via Comcast SportsNet New England. “It’s the first time I’ve played corner in a game, I think, in like three years, so obviously it’s a lot of frustration, but you just gotta play. It didn’t feel great, and I don’t think it looked great, so we’ll see.”

Saints quarterback Drew Brees torched the Patriots, going 8-of-10 for 168 yards and a touchdown in three series. Cook inflicted a lot of the damage himself, catching four passes for 117 yards.

To be fair, the secondary is seemingly the only part of a football team that Belichick hasn’t been able to patch together. In a lot of instances, it appears to be more about the scheme than the players. Of course, having a quarterback the caliber of Tom Brady makes it a lot easier to piece things together, too.

But for whatever reason, that doesn’t appear to be the case when it comes to pass defense. When the Patriots have built a secondary with duct tape and bubble gum, it has performed as such.

From 2010 to 2012, the Patriots allowed the third-, second-, and fourth-most passing yards in the league, respectively. The team didn’t re-sign former Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel after the 2007 season, and had failed to replace him five years later, which is likely one of the reasons why Belichick took a risk on acquiring troubled cornerback Aqib Talib in November 2012.

It’s true that allowing a lot of passing yards doesn’t always equate to surrendering a lot of points. In that three-year stretch, the Patriots never ranked worse than 14th in the league in points allowed.

But not giving up points and shutting down the opposition are two different things. In Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants, for example, the Patriots were clenching to a 17-15 lead with 3:46 left in the fourth quarter, but surrendered an 88-yard touchdown drive that whittled the game clock down to 1:04. Though the Pats only allowed 21 points in that game, its defense failed when the season was on the line.

Last season, the defense stepped up when it had to. Over the last nine games, including the playoffs, the defense allowed a mere 12 fourth quarter points. Perhaps the best example of this came in the Super Bowl, when the Patriots’ secondary depth allowed the coaching staff to deploy Malcolm Butler on to the field for Seattle’s final play.

Another shining moment for the secondary in the Super Bowl came when the Patriots stuck Browner on Seahawks wideout Chris Matthews after halftime. Matthews torched the Pats for 109 yards and a touchdown in the first half, but wasn’t heard from again.

The Patriots were able to make those adjustments because they had the depth. The same can’t be said for this season.

It goes against Belichick’s philosophy to give one player a boatload of fully guaranteed money up front, which is what the Jets did with Revis. The Gang Green convinced Revis to come home after signing him to a five-year, $70 million deal, with $39 million guaranteed in the first three seasons.

But given how much Revis meant to the Patriots’ defense last year, he’s worth the lofty price tag. Quarterbacks who targeted Revis in the regular season only completed 43.4 percent of their passes for 523 yards, two touchdowns, and four interceptions. From week eight onward, Revis held quarterbacks to a measly 31.7 passer rating when they threw to his side of the field.

Now the Patriots are without their shutdown corner and the two men who were directly behind him on the depth chart. The secondary is thin, and as we saw Saturday night, thin secondaries can get picked apart.

The Patriots have won with weak pass defense before; the club made the Super Bowl in 2011 with Julian Edelman slotting in at cornerback. But after how dominant the defense was at the end of games last season, it’s easy to see what one of the missing ingredients was for the Patriots in the 10 years between Super Bowl wins.

It sure was on display Saturday night in New Orleans, and if history is a trustworthy predictor of the future, it will likely be easy to notice when the games start to count, too.