In team sports, you often hear, “You win as a team and you lose as a team”. Rarely will you find a coach or staff that believes otherwise. Bill Belichick and his staff do not sway away from this mentality.
With that being said, it may not always be true.
The New England defense allowed over 538 yards on the grandest stage of them all. Philadelphia was an astounding 10-16 on third down conversions, 2-2 on fourth down conversions, and didn’t allow a sack.
This is not to take away from a brilliant performance from the Super Bowl MVP, Nick Foles, but the Patriots defense was non-existent Sunday night.
Aside from Stephon Gilmore, who was virtually lock-down, the Patriots’ secondary got scorched. Jordan Richards looked lost on numerous occasions. One of those included a key third down where he let up a 55-yard play to put the Eagles in scoring position. Eric Rowe allowed over 80-yards in coverage as well as a touchdown while serving as New England’s second corner… We won’t get into that.
If you haven’t figured out how to say goodbye to Malcolm Butler yet, I suggest reading this article.
The defensive-front couldn’t sustain consistent pressure on Nick Foles. Foles wasn’t pressured on play action, three step drops, five step drops, and RPO’s. In other words: HE WAS NEVER PRESSURED.
A combined effort highlighted by LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi rushed for over 160-yards, a touchdown, and six first downs. Blount and Ajayi both gashed the Patriots with carries of over 25-yards.
The Patriots offense, however, was amazing.
Tom Brady, for the second straight Super Bowl, threw for over 500-yards. He tossed three touchdown passes and zero interceptions. All after one of his best targets, Brandin Cooks, left the game due to a head injury early on.
Not counting the 34-second drive to end the first half, Tom Brady led the Patriots on four straight drives of over seventy-five yards or more… each resulting in touchdowns. This strand ended with a beautiful strip-sack by Brandon Graham late in the fourth quarter.
After reviewing these points, while it may be a team effort, the defense lost New England the Super Bowl.
While there certainly are a few question marks on offense for New England, there is much more to be happy about. Among the uncertainties are Nate Solder, Danny Amendola, and Dion Lewis’ expiring contracts.
While Gronkowski has had his share of injuries, I am calling his bluff on potential retirement. Next season, health providing, the Patriots offense will have Cooks, Gronkowski, Edelman, and Hogan all at once. Also we can’t forget about the return of Malcolm Mitchell. I am not concerned about the offense.
The defense, however, will require much change.
During the Super Bowl, fans got to see a sneak peek of New England’s secondary without Malcolm Butler and no additions. Newsflash: IT WAS ATROCIOUS.
Outside of miscommunication against the Chiefs and Panthers, and poor performances against the Bills once, and the Steelers, Stephon Gilmore was great this season. It now seems clear to all why New England gave him ‘lock-down cornerback’ money.
PFF gave Stephon Gilmore an 89.1 grade for the season, ranking him the 8th best cornerback in the league.
According to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, through the entire playoffs, Stephon Gilmore allowed 4-15 completed passes for 55-yards, with 6 pass breakups.
The New England Patriots have their clear-cut #1 cornerback for the future.
Devin McCourty is still playing great ball for New England, and position-mate Duron Harmon has been key as well.
For this last season, both Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon were ranked top-10 out of all free-safeties by Bleacher Report.
Patrick Chung, strong-safety, will also likely be keeping his starting job in New England next season. One could argue that Chung deserved Pro-Bowl honors this year. Chung’s ability to defend tight ends and play at the line of scrimmage makes him vital in New England.
CORNERBACK HELP FROM WITHIN
Cyrus Jones, former second round pick, looks to return from a torn ACL and compete for a job next season. Jones was far from a fan favorite a season ago after muffing multiple punts. The guy damn-near got booed out of Foxborough. Players like Edelman coming to his defense and touting his work ethic shouldn’t go unnoticed. How Bill views Cyrus’ potential could sway the Patriots’ search for a nickel cornerback.
While it may be hard to envision this right now, I would not be all that surprised to see Eric Rowe starting across from Gilmore next season. Most of Rowe’s 2017-2018 season was lost to injuries. Last season, as well as when he was healthy towards the end of this regular season, he looked like the guy to fill Butler’s shoes. There is no denying that Rowe started the Super Bowl on the wrong foot, but he is a good player. Whether he is #2 cornerback material is up to Bill.
The obvious need in this secondary is at the #2 cornerback position. Whether the improvements come from in-house, or not, remains to be seen.
While improvements at the cornerback position will be vital going forward, if the front seven continues to struggle at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the talent level in the secondary won’t matter a bit.
Looking back, the eight-sack performance against the Tennessee Titans seems to be nothing more than an anomaly. The Patriots’ group of pass-rushers are very young, headlined by the leader of the group, Trey Flowers, and his sidekick, Deatrich Wise. Both having played their college ball at Arkansas, seem to be the head of the pack going forward for New England.
Trey Flowers proved that it is possible to have a good season as a pass rusher with low sack numbers, totaling at 6.5. With that being said, he led the team in that category, which is not close to the number you want your leading sack artist to have.
Things didn’t go as planned with the edge rushers for New England this season. Rob Ninkovich retired shortly before the season started, leaving a hole in leadership and skill level.
Also last off-season, the Patriots acquired former Super Bowl hero, Kony Ealy, from the Panthers. Needless to say, his time in Foxborough was short-lived.
Going into this offseason, there are improvements to be made with the pass rush, some may argue that it is the biggest area of need for New England.
I would expect New England to use one of their three picks in the first two rounds of the draft on pass rush. Whether that be defensive-end, or a 3-4 pass rush linebacker. This unit as a whole has struggled enough to where I wouldn’t be surprised if New England spent a decent penny in free agency to sure it up.
PASS RUSH HELP FROM WITHIN
Also what should be noted is the Patriots’ first draft choice last year, Derek Rivers, missed all of this season with a torn ACL.
Derek Rivers, a pass rush specialist in college, stands at 6-foot-4, 245-pounds. In four college seasons, Rivers compiled a total of 37.5-sacks. Having been the team’s first selection in the draft, expect Rivers to be some much needed help from within.
An obvious addition to multiple phases of the front-seven, is the return of Donta Hightower. Donta is without a doubt one of the NFL’s best all-around linebackers. His ability to play in coverage, manage the defense, and rush the passer was surely missed this season.
The everlasting issue with Hightower is his inability to play a full season. The key with Hightower is to not rely on him so heavily early in the season to give him his rest. Honestly, just hope his injuries come early rather than late, and not season-ending. With hopeful thinking, having Donta Hightower back for the entirety of next season will greatly impact the pass rush.
Continuing on with Dont’a Hightower: His impact on the linebacker core is unmatched. Dont’a takes pressure off of his teammates and does a great job at preventing any confusion. Having Dont’a back would be huge, but relying on his return is not something I recommend.
The Patriots made a great addition when bringing in Marquise Flowers, and the trade for Kyle Van Noy has been a complete success. That said, even with the Pro-Bowl caliber Hightower back, the linebacker position lacks depth. Specifically, they lack athletes at the linebacker position.
Too often, Patrick Chung has to take on a larger role than you would like him to because he is constantly moving down into the box in aid of the unathletic linebackers.
I don’t mean to tug on strings here, but the Patriots are in desperate need of a ‘Jamie Collins’ like linebacker. Someone with the speed to pick up wide receivers over the middle and can keep up with running-backs. The undersized linebacker who moves like a safety is exactly what you should expect the Patriots to be looking for from their first pick, to their last.
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE
Other than maybe the safety position, interior defensive line may be the most solid group on defense. Led by the young defensive tackle out of Texas, Malcom Brown, this group can usually hold its own against most lines.
Again, the return of a healthy Donta Hightower, even though he doesn’t play defensive line, will help this unit immensely. Donta’s ability to line up over the center and coordinate the young defensive linemen like Malcom Brown, Ricky Jean-Francois, and Adam Butler will help their growth. Another key kog in this unity is veteran, Lawrence Guy. Guy came in as a free agent from Baltimore and contributed a large amount over the second half of the season.
Once vital big-man, Alan Branch, was a healthy scratch for the entire playoffs thanks to the emergence of Jean-Francois and the steady play of Guy. I wouldn’t be all that surprised to see him become a cap-casualty.
The most action I expect from this group would be the Patriots picking up Malcom Brown’s fifth-year option. The young guys will continue to grow and improve here.
Whether it be at the #2 or #3 cornerback positions, pass rush, linebacker position… or all of the above: This defense needs to get better. A lot better.