The performance of the Patriots secondary in an embarrassing 29-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins Monday night doesn't leave one with much confidence, with inexperienced cornerbacks giving up crucial receptions and a converted wide receiver, Troy Brown, beaten on the game-winning play.
Thus the focus naturally turns to All-Pro cornerback Ty Law, who is rehabbing a broken left foot.
Listed as doubtful last week, Law practiced some but did not play Monday night. With the New York Jets on deck at the Meadowlands Sunday afternoon, the cornerback wants to play, according to a source familiar with Law's injury, even if in a limited role.
Will the team let him, or will it save him for the playoffs?
Law appears to be the Patriots' only hope of solidifying the secondary after they put Tyrone Poole on injured reserve last week because the medical staff believed Poole needed more time to fully recover from knee surgery.
But if Law should reinjure his foot by coming back too soon, then what? Enter the playoffs with a couple of free agents and a converted wide receiver in the secondary? Not exactly a comforting thought after seeing the secondary exposed Monday night (although Randall Gay leaving after having the wind knocked out of him didn't help).
Overall, the secondary has done a great job allowing the team to continue winning, with Brown and free agents Gay and Earthwind Moreland playing important roles while Poole and Law have been missing.
As one player on an opposing team said recently, "It's embarrassing that we were unable to capitalize on their secondary. I mean, really embarrassing."
The Dolphins had no such lament.
Tom Brady's four interceptions were certainly a major factor in the loss, but Dolphins quarterback A.J. Feeley had no problems finding the openings in the New England secondary when he needed to convert key plays. With 1:23 left, he found Derrius Thompson for the winning touchdown from 21 yards out, on fourth and 10, over Brown.
The personnel department clearly decided there wasn't a veteran defensive back out there good enough to help. Depth has been a staple of the Patriots, but the team elected not to address this area.
The veteran Brown, always classy, took responsibility for not being able to stop Thompson, who is almost four inches taller than him. But who could blame Brown? Not coach Bill Belichick, who thought Brown did everything he could on the play, but that Thompson made a great catch. Nevertheless, the game was on the line and a converted receiver was covering Thompson in the end zone.
Feeley and Thompson were expecting to see a zone but got one-on-one coverage after the Patriots blitzed, leaving Brown out there with Thompson. Feeley found the mismatch.
"We ran that play a couple of times, and on the final time we got the coverage we wanted," said Thompson, who even felt he was interfered with on the play.
Feeley said, "I guess you could say we picked on [Brown], but that wasn't the case going into the game. I couldn't even tell you who was covering on the last play of the game."
Interim Dolphins coach Jim Bates knew.
"We wanted to get some matchups on Troy," Bates said. "He had three interceptions coming in, but it's tough to go over and play defensive back. It just happened that way. Derrius made an excellent catch."
Brown's team-first attitude and his willingness to take on a new position are commendable, but Monday night's game was proof the experiment has its downside. A good game plan can go a long way in exploiting the secondary's weaknesses.
Belichick said last week he feared that teams would do more game-planning against the unit.
"I'm sure the more the teams see anybody play, the more that they'll game-plan for that particular player and try to attack that player's weaknesses and run certain routes or run certain plays that they think exploit either the scheme or individual players," Belichick said.
The strain on the secondary certainly has put more pressure on Rodney Harrison to make plays. The veteran safety was called for interference in the end zone against Chris Chambers, which led to the Dolphins' next-to-last score, which pulled Miami within 5, at 28-23.
The Dolphins also were able to block the Patriots' front seven very well, and except for four sacks, New England didn't get enough pressure on Feeley, which often is the kiss of death for even a healthy and veteran secondary.