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Steelers exposed defense's weak spots

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / November 2, 2011

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The Patriots’ failings on defense certainly have been collective, but through seven games, there are a few glaring weaknesses in this unit.

The biggest problem areas are at free safety, strong-side linebacker and rush end, weak-side linebacker, and third cornerback. It’s no wonder that all of those spots figure into pass defense, where the Patriots find new ways to hit rock bottom each week.

Only one of those positions stands to get better: weak-side linebacker, when Jerod Mayo returns to health and gets more comfortable in this scheme. Even when he’s in the lineup, he has been tentative at best. But he’s too good of a player to stay down.

Otherwise, the rest of the season is basically a hope-and-pray effort: hope you can coach up a few more plays each game, and pray that quarterback Tom Brady stays healthy and carries this team even more than he has already.

An outline of the problem areas:

Free safety: James Ihedigbo seemed to settle this position down after Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown were near-disasters the first three games. We now know that the success came as a result of the Jets and Cowboys deciding not to throw downfield. In Sunday’s 25-17 win over the Patriots, the Steelers went right after Ihedigbo, and he was pulled in the second half for Brown after factoring in five poor plays that gave up 70 yards - 30 on the ground. Brown brings much more athleticism to the position, but he’s a huge risk against the pass. Brown was lucky Ben Roethlisberger threw hot to tight end Heath Miller on the first play of the fourth quarter. Brown forgot to cover Emmanuel Sanders, who was running free down the middle of the field.

Strong-side linebacker and rush end: Rob Ninkovich is certainly capable of setting the edge and playing the run, but when a team throws 45 times a game, he becomes a liability, both in zone coverage and when he converts to rush end in sub packages. Ninkovich’s inability to be dynamic athletically in zone pass coverage hurts.

But it’s more of a problem in pass rush. Ninkovich is playing the role Tully Banta-Cain did last season when he played through injury. Banta-Cain had 17.5 total quarterback pressures (sacks, hurries, and knockdowns combined) through seven games last season. Ninkovich has 11.

More glaring is that after getting nine quarterback pressures in the first three games, Ninkovich has two in the past four. Perhaps he is injured. But who else do the Patriots have to put in there?

The rest of the defensive line has done a decent job. The lack of a complementary pass rusher to Andre Carter is really affecting this team - and Carter is drawing more double teams with each game.

The Patriots had 16 quarterback pressures against the Steelers, including six that came from Roethlisberger holding the ball and trying to make a play. Only three hurries (18.8 percent) came when he released the ball in fewer than three seconds (most QBs aim to get rid of it in fewer than three seconds). For the Steelers against Brady, it was 80 percent. That’s affecting the quarterback. The Patriots have to get to the quarterback quicker.

Weak-side linebacker: Outside of the interception that Roethlisberger threw right to him, Guyton again had issues in the run game and allowed four receptions in his area. If you’re going to play mostly zone because the secondary is such an issue, then the linebackers have to be more athletic dropping into zone.

This used to be Guyton’s strength, but it isn’t anymore. Will Mayo be any better? He certainly will be against the run. Guyton continues to play the run like a 3-4 linebacker - where you run into the line and “wall-up’’ against the back. In the 4-3, linebackers need to get off blocks and make tackles.

Third cornerback: It seems like years ago when cornerback actually appeared to be a strength on this team coming out of training camp, with Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling on the outside, and Leigh Bodden on the inside with Kyle Arrington as the dime back.

The Patriots had the talent to play aggressive man coverage. The problem was they didn’t execute, Dowling couldn’t stay on the field, and Bodden lost a step along the way. That led to the team falling back into zone, and releasing Bodden.

Now the Patriots are relying on Antwaun Molden and Phillip Adams to be the third cornerbacks. Molden was benched against the Steelers. Adams didn’t make any glaring errors so perhaps there is hope he won’t be a liability.

For the Patriots to be better in the final nine games, they must get improved play at those four spots.

Here are the positional ratings against the Steelers:

QUARTERBACK Rating: 3 out of 5

The Steelers and the Patriots’ offensive line had a lot to do with it, but this wasn’t Brady in top form. In a lot of ways, it was reminiscent of the playoff loss to the Jets. At times he felt pressure when there wasn’t any, and he also didn’t throw to at least a few open receivers despite spotting them. The same percentage of his throws were released in fewer than three seconds and went 10 yards or less (81.5 percent). That’s above his average for both (70 and 60 percent, respectively). Brady obviously wasn’t very comfortable in the pocket - despite being subjected to 10 total pressures, which is average. The Steelers blitzed more than four rushers on 36.6 percent of his dropbacks. Brady had eight outstanding throws, and six that were off the mark. He was pressured on only one of the minus throws - the failed 40-yarder to Taylor Price that was open as Brady threw on the run. On the throw immediately after LaMarr Woodley’s second sack, Brady didn’t get his feet set - he stepped to the sideline instead of toward Rob Gronkowski - and sailed a pass wide. Still, Brady did enough to win - and could have done more, given more chances by the defense.

RUNNING BACK Rating: 4 out of 5

Despite Kevin Faulk (39 snaps) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (13 snaps) gaining only 3.7 yards per carry, each got what was blocked - which wasn’t much - and didn’t leave any yards out there. The Steelers are just that good against the run, especially when they’re playing so many players close to the line. Faulk played far too many snaps in his first game back from ACL surgery.

RECEIVERS Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez each missed a run block, and we don’t know what Chad Ochocinco was doing on his one target of the game, but the group was fine. Wes Welker (two) and Gronkowski had outstanding catches. Steelers safety Troy Polamalu wasn’t penalized for his high tackle of Welker in the fourth quarter - he should have been - but he certainly will get a fine. How tough were yards to come by? Of Brady’s 24 completions, 15 (62.5 percent) produced 1 yard or less after the catch and the total YAC yards were 89 (3.7 per completion). The Patriots led league in YAC (6.35 per completion) entering the game.

OFFENSIVE LINE Rating: 1 out of 5

When you get four penalties as a group (two from Logan Mankins), it’s not a good day at the office. The unit actually performed better than it looked, besides the penalties. Ten quarterback pressures allowed is average. Sebastian Vollmer got a rude welcome back with four pressures allowed: two sacks, a hurry, and a knockdown (and a penalty). Imagine if Woodley (two sacks) didn’t get hurt. Mankins was subpar and Matt Light had his struggles (two hurries). The Patriots continue to struggle with stunts.

DEFENSIVE LINE Rating: 3.5 out of 5

If you take away the failure to generate more pressure with four rushers - the Patriots sent more than four rushers on 24.5 percent of Roethlisberger’s 57 dropbacks (including two penalties) - this unit actually had a standout game. Included in that praise would be Albert Haynesworth, who had three quarterback hurries and a strong run tackle in just 22 snaps. The team needed him more in this game (he did have one blown gap against the run) and you have to wonder if his contract, which contains playing time incentives, is the issue or whether it’s his health and/or conditioning. Vince Wilfork (coverage sack, two half stuffed runs), Kyle Love (coverage sack, 2.5 hurries), and Andre Carter (two coverage sacks, half run stuff) also stood out.

LINEBACKERS Rating: 1 out of 5

Brandon Spikes was very effective at times - two half run stuffs, tipped pass, pass breakup, and two nice plays getting off blocks against the run - but struggled just as much. He likely was at fault on the third-and-11 conversion on the opening drive. There’s no way Heath Miller - along with three other receivers - should be that wide open. Spikes allowed another 13-yard pass to Miller and was late reacting on a Mike Wallace crossing route in front of him. Ninkovich contributed to Miller’s big day by failing to execute at least two jams at the line. Guyton was a nonfactor, as was Mayo in his 31 snaps after injury. At least the defense looked more settled when Mayo was on the field.

SECONDARY Rating: 1.5 out of 5

If you’re going to play zone, you need a pass rush and linebackers who drop well into coverage. The Patriots have neither, so the secondary is going to be exposed against a good quarterback. On Mewelde Moore’s opening touchdown, the Steelers ran a well-designed pick play. Both Molden and Ihedigbo didn’t play it well - they were caught a little flat-footed and reacted late - but the Patriots added a third defender when the Steelers stacked receivers in the red zone - a key to the improved play in that area - so the scheme wasn’t sound early. Ideally, though, Ihedigbo reads the play, goes through Wallace, and makes the tackle. On Antonio Brown’s 7-yard touchdown, Molden sagged against the corner route in the end zone and didn’t see Brown slide into the flat. That’s his area. Patrick Chung had two penalties but continued to play well against the run and had a pass breakup in the end zone.

SPECIAL TEAMS Rating: 1 out of 5

Stephen Gostkowski missed a 42-yard field goal attempt and almost whiffed on the onside kick. Zoltan Mesko had a 33-yard punt that stayed in the air 3.14 seconds. Danny Woodhead averaged 18.5 yards per kickoff return, while the Steelers had 27.0. Just not a good day.

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

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