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Patriots didn’t have things covered in the secondary

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / September 28, 2011

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Patriots players won’t be the only ones on the spot after Sunday’s disappointing 34-31 loss to the Bills. The coaches likely will be as well, most notably in the secondary.

The inconsistency in the back of the defense has been glaring this season, and it hit bottom against the Bills. There were repeated errors, both in technique and execution.

There were seven breakdowns in pass-coverage fundamentals, with second-year cornerback Devin McCourty leading the way with five and cornerback Leigh Bodden contributing two.

Whether it was failing to get a hand on the receiver in press coverage or biting on double moves, the Patriots struggled.

Amazingly, there was just one blown coverage - and it seemed likely that safety Sergio Brown failed to cover correctly when Bills tight end Scott Chandler was left open on a 3-yard score in the third quarter.

There were a galling nine missed tackles by the defense overall (some on the same play), which awarded 92 yards to the Bills.

Seven of those missed tackles came in the secondary, with safety Josh Barrett being responsible for five, the last of which came on Fred Jackson’s 38-yard catch down to the 1-yard line. Instead of an 8-yard gain, Barrett’s error allowed another 30 yards.

This has been a season-long problem. The Patriots missed six tackles in the opener against the Dolphins, and five in Week 2 against the Chargers.

The hidden yardage and downs lost in these breakdowns are hurting this young defense, and are a factor in why the Patriots rank last in the league in defense.

These kinds of breakdowns are highly unusual for a Bill Belichick-coached team. Maybe the lockout contributed to this. Either way, you have to wonder if Belichick will be taking a closer look at his assistants in the coming weeks.

The biggest offseason change was not the “promotion’’ of Bill O’Brien to offensive coordinator, but the departure of safeties coach Corwin Brown.

Brown had personal problems leading up to his departure, according to team sources. After leaving the team, Brown got into a standoff with police and shot himself in the stomach at his Indiana home Aug. 12. He is currently undergoing psychological treatment as part of his court case.

Brown was brought in to help Josh Boyer handle the secondary after the group was shaky in 2009. The pairing apparently worked well. McCourty had seven interceptions and went to the Pro Bowl as the Patriots weathered the storm after losing Bodden to injury. A veteran safety group didn’t have many breakdowns, aside from the occasional Brandon Meriweather bad angle or missed tackle, which was par for his Patriots career.

After Brown departed, Belichick left the defensive backs basically up to Boyer. He does have help, however. De facto defensive coordinator Matt Patricia technically moved from linebackers to safeties coach, but in training camp he spent more time with the linebackers. On game days, he makes the defensive calls.

Defensive assistant Brian Flores, whom several players have lauded privately, can be seen on game days coaching the players on the bench after defensive series as Boyer is on a headset in the coaches booth.

After coaching for six years at small colleges, Boyer joined the Patriots in 2006 as defensive assistant before being named defensive backs coach in ’09. A year later Brown was brought in, and now the group is back in Boyer’s hands.

When the unit has struggled this season, Belichick has talked to the secondary as a group and players individually.

Considering the play so far, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Belichick get even more hands-on in the coming weeks.

Here are the positional ratings from the Bills game:

QUARTERBACK (Rating: 2.5 out of 5)

Of the four interceptions, 2.5 fell on Tom Brady. Danny Woodhead didn’t run toward the sideline on the first, so he wasn’t expecting the ball in the flat. If Brady gave him a second longer to turn upfield, Woodhead could have beaten Byron Scott on a wheel route. Brady didn’t put enough air under the ball to Rob Gronkowski in the fourth quarter, but the tight end could have helped things by staying by the numbers (on the field). The final deflection was the third time Brady had a pass batted down. That was in the Bills’ game plan because of all the underneath passes Brady throws (73 percent of his 45 attempts were thrown 10 yards or less). Many teams will do the same. But overall Brady was sharp against a team that was playing coverage against him; the Bills didn’t play one down of base defense.

RUNNING BACKS (Rating: 3.5 out of 5)

Stevan Ridley needs to play more, and he likely earned a little bit more time with his authoritative blitz pickup on the team’s final drive. Woodhead (3.5 yards per carry) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1.8) were not as explosive, but there wasn’t much open space. The difference is that Ridley created his own, although he dances too much from time to time. Like the Jets in the playoffs, the Bills dared the Patriots to run with six defensive backs on the field nearly every down (Scott, a safety, played nickel linebacker) and they decided not to until the second half, when 15 of the 26 carries came.

RECEIVERS (Rating: 4 out of 5)

You can’t ask much more of Wes Welker and Gronkowski, who were targeted on 29 of Brady’s 45 pass attempts (64.4 percent). The duo caught 23 (79.3 percent) despite getting the concentrated efforts of the defense from the second quarter on. Gronkowski was double-teamed consistently in the red zone. Chad Ochocinco, who did have a sliding catch, was really the only blemish on this group. He rounded off his route on the key second-half interception, and his drop was terrible, although he was bailed out when Welker scored nearly five minutes later. That’s time the Patriots could have used at the end.

OFFENSIVE LINE (Rating: 2.5 out of 5)

Center Dan Connolly may have had his finest game as a pro, and he didn’t receive that much help going against the heavy rotation the Bills had on the line, including standout nose tackle Kyle Williams, who was invisible. Connolly’s only negative - and this went for the group - is that they couldn’t get much movement in the running game against a vastly improved Bills line. Right tackle Nate Solder had a very rough time against both linebacker Chris Kelsay and defensive end Alex Carrington. Solder allowed three hurries, a knockdown that caused another knee shot to Brady, a holding penalty that cost 45 yards, and he could have been called for holding about three times.

DEFENSIVE LINE (Rating: 2.5 out of 5)

We think some of the lack of pressure was the result of a mandate for the players to stay in their assigned lanes because the Patriots were rightfully scared to death of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller running for large chunks. The line appeared to carry out its first job very well, even though Jackson had 74 yards on 12 carries (6.2 average). The line had four run stuffs (carries for 1 yard or less outside of short yardage or goal line situations) with two coming from tackle Kyle Love. Whether it was by assignment or not, the entire defense accounted for just five total quarterback pressures, tying the lowest from last season which, wouldn’t you know it, came in a similar debacle at Cleveland. The Patriots need more bodies here, and some that can get up the field. Andre Carter is the only legit threat, and he’s constantly getting chipped by running backs. The injuries to Mike Wright and Myron Pryor are really affecting this group. Shaun Ellis has not shown much rush since being kicked inside as a sub rusher the past two games. He suffered the ultimate indignity by not only being blocked on a rush by Jackson, but being knocked back about 5 feet on Barrett’s negated interception. Rob Ninkovich played all but one snap at end and had 1.5 knockdowns, a half hurry, and a roughing-the-passer penalty.

LINEBACKERS (Rating: 1.5 out of 5)

Any breakdowns against the run came with this unit, as Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, and Gary Guyton (just 20 snaps) had difficulty with their fits. They are still feeling their way through this scheme because it’s quite a departure from the 3-4. They’ll get better with more reps. Spikes was in position to make a play on Jackson’s 1-yard touchdown run with 10:36 left in the fourth quarter, but failed to get there. The Patriots blitzed just six times (15 percent). Mayo had trouble getting around Jackson, who was good but not exceptional in blitz pickup.

SECONDARY (Rating: 1 out of 5)

If it was weren’t for Kyle Arrington (who saw this coming?) and his two interceptions and one pass breakup, this group would have been a near-total failure. The theme of the day was set on the Bills’ opening play when Stevie Johnson faked out Bodden, who couldn’t slow him up, and blew past him for a 33-yard gain. That scene was repeated once more for Bodden, and five times for McCourty. On the 11-yard touchdown to Johnson in the second quarter, McCourty positioned himself to take away the inside route, yet when Johnson faked inside, McCourty bit, hopped, and Johnson went untouched for a much-too-easy touchdown. That’s just simple technique, and it happened over and over all day on the outside. It can be cleaned up. Barrett missed five tackles that he should have made. The Patriots need Patrick Chung back in the worst way.

SPECIAL TEAMS (Rating: 2 out of 5) 0

Punter Zoltan Mesko was outstanding with a 46.7-yard average and a hang time of 4.38 seconds. Left unnoticed was his handling of Danny Aiken’s low snap on Stephen Gostkowski’s 23-yard field in the third quarter. The ball actually hit the turf. Imagine if that had been botched. Matthew Slater and James Ihedigbo had two standout coverage tackles. Ross Ventrone looked overmatched blocking on punts and in coverage. Julian Edelman failed to field a 52-yard punt with 4:02 left in the third quarter, which cost the Patriots at least 15 yards of field position. But Edelman did have two nice punt returns.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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