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System failure

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 9, 2009 05:04 AM
Stop me if you've heard this before, but the Patriots' defense can't come up with a stop when it really counts.

It happened again on Sunday in South Florida against the Miami Dolphins. The defense rested when it needed to make its case that it could close out a game, allowing Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne to covert a crucial fourth down that set up the game-winning points off the leg of kicker Dan Carpenter.

Dolphins guard Justin Smiley said after the game the fourth-down play was like something out of a maudlin football movie, but for the Patriots defense it was "Groundhog Day," with coach Bill Belichick starring as Bill Murray.

The Patriots used to be better closers than Mariano Rivera. CBS flashed the graphic during the Miami game that from 2002 to 2008, New England was 66-1 when leading at the half. Now, they're like Healthcliff Slocumb, minus the wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen.

This season, four of the Patriots' five losses have come after they went into the locker room with the lead.

The popular theory is that Belichick just doesn't have the defensive personnel to get the job done anymore, or if you listen to defensive coordinator Dean Pees, it's simply a matter of fixable fundamentally-flawed play.

I think it's something else -- a system failure.

The Patriots' defense needs to be rebooted and outfitted with a different operating system. Like Zack Morris's cell phone, New England's two-gap scheme is outmoded for today's NFL, which has rules that are almost egregiously slanted toward the offense, particularly the passing game.

Not many NFL teams run the strict two-gap style of defense that the Patriots do today, a defense that sacrifices speed for size in its front seven and asks its linemen to Sumo wrestle opposing blockers and then make a read as to whether to try to get off the block to the left or the right.

Linemen stunting and twisting to get free at the snap is almost a foreign concept in the New England defensive game plan.

Back in the preseason, when Belichick was quizzed on the team's expanded use of four-man fronts, which has become the defense du jour in passing situations, he said that the linemen are asked to play the same techniques in the four-man look as in the three-man look.

You saw how even a marginal quarterback like Henne was able to systematically dissect the Patriots' secondary when given time to throw, which he had plenty of on Sunday and which opposing passers have enjoyed plenty of all year against the Patriots.

New England ranks tied for 28th in the NFL in sacks with just 20.

The most successful defenses around the league are not read-and-react units like the Patriots. They're read-and-attack units like the Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, and Philadelphia Eagles, who rank first, second, fifth and sixth respectively in the NFL in total defense.

The days of plugging in players like corners Hank Poteat and Earthwind Moreland and baiting bad reads or waiting for bad throws are over. The best way to play defense now is to go on the offensive and hit the quarterback before he hits a pass downfield.

Interestingly, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, one of the deans of the zone blitz who has remade the Packers porous defense into an attacking 3-4 unit, was in New England last season as a special assistant-secondary coach. Belichick and the Patriots let him depart after just one season. Little of Capers' imprint was seen on the Patriots' defense.

A term we hear thrown around a lot in Foxborough is "value," but it seems that what the Patriots really value on defense isn't talent, but the scheme, clinging to it with the stubbornness of a child who won't abandon his or her favorite stuffed animal.

This style of defense, which won three Super Bowls, is supposed to be bend-but-don't-break, but the Patriots' defense is proving more malleable than a Cirque du Soleil performer these days.

The Patriots should get a pass-defense reprieve this Sunday with the Carolina Panthers in town. Playing in the state where the Wright brothers first took flight, the Panthers have been nothing special in the air -- they have eight touchdown passes this season, tied with Oakland for last in the league.

Belichick is one of the most brilliant defensive minds to ever diagram an X or an O. His game plans to slow down the Buffalo Bills' no-huddle "K-Gun" attack in Super Bowl XXV and the St. Louis Rams "Greatest Show on Turf" in Super XXXVI belong in the Louvre because they were both masterful works of art, genius at its highest level.

But now the artful thing to do is to adapt his defensive scheme more to his personnel and to the times.

Vince Wilfork is the Patriots' most disruptive and unblockable player. Having him occupy two blockers is doing the opposing offense a favor. Consistently dropping Adalius Thomas into coverage is doing the offense a favor.

To be fair, it's not that the Patriots don't try to bring pressure within the confines of their current system. As colleague Albert R. Breer broke down in his Tale of the Tape the Patriots brought extra rushers 22 times against Miami.

They had little success.

On Miami's first touchdown, the Patriots blitzed Jerod Mayo and Brandon Meriweather and rookie safety Pat Chung. No one got there, Henne got the ball out and Davone Bess got a touchdown.

As Belichick would say, the Patriots have to play it better and coach it better. They can.

Now, if Belichick had a Julius Peppers or a Jason Taylor, then the same old defensive scheme would probably work just fine, just as it did when he had Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks with the Giants. But now he has Derrick Burgess.

The best coaches mold their systems to their talent and not the other way around.

Remember when Bill Parcells had no running game? He had Drew Bledsoe throw the ball a team-record 691 times in 1994, including an NFL-record 70 times in a win over the Minnesota Vikings.

Belichick needs to find the defensive equivalent of that and fast, because if his defense continues to rest with games on the line, then they'll be resting in January during the playoffs.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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