There is something special about a defense that returns 10 of its 11 starters.
Call it steady, consistent, or even reliable (gasp!). You know what you’re getting in terms of talent, smarts, and headaches, all in one batch. That’s the 2013 Patriots defense after adding only defensive tackle Tommy Kelly to its core group.
And similarly, the team’s performance has not changed dramatically over the past three years, ranking 25th or worse in total defense and 29th or worse in passing defense. But over the past year, the defense has gone from a leaky cauldron of everything-in-the-pot stew, to a cream of mushroom soup, with much of its success being traced to a more consistent secondary, and in particular cornerback Aqib Talib.
The Patriots acquired Talib in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the middle of the 2012 season, giving up a 2013 fourth round draft choice (DT Akeem Spence), while getting a 2013 seventh rounder as well.
It wasn’t a smooth transition with Talib coming off a four-game suspension for performance enhancing substances and questions of his character looming in the air. But now Talib is enjoying a successful 2013 campaign, nabbing two interceptions against the New York Jets’ rookie quarterback, Geno Smith, and coming up with a forced fumble on receiver Stephen Hill. He allowed only one reception against the Bills, an 18-yard touchdown to Robert Woods. Along with his counterparts, his game has stepped up tremendously from 2012, and they have allowed just 339 yards passing as a unit in the first two games of the season. The Patriots have the fourth-best pass defense in the league, a far cry from 2012’s dismal 29th ranking.
Talib's contributions to the ‘12 team were certainly questionable, given the numbers. He opened his Patriots tenure with a blast against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 10, intercepting an Andrew Luck pass and returning it 59 yards for a touchdown. But in six games for the Patriots, the team allowed 304.5 yards per game passing, an uptick from the 283.5 average in games without him. He recorded no more interceptions and only one pass defensed.
But the stats don’t tell the whole story, especially for a team that has valued its defensive chemistry and communication. As he has become more comfortable in the defense, so too have those around him. But it is the structure in New England that has helped the talented cornerback develop some of his raw skills.
“I think to be honest I'd say he plays more disciplined now,” said one AFC scout, comparing what Talib has done for the Patriots to his time in Tampa Bay. “[There is a] correlation with structure of organization and what Bill [Belichick] demands out of his players and discipline he instills. You have to do what you're supposed to do for fear of being reprimanded has helped.”
Now don’t go throwing Talib in the same category as Darrelle Revis or Patrick Peterson, but he has the intangibles as a good player to push a defense along from being moribund to dignified.
“I think he's a good player,” said the scout. “[You] can tell structure has helped him. That's maturity as well.”
With the same structure in place, the Patriots are finally able to start plugging holes that were so wide open the past three seasons. It’s a small sample size, but there’s no denying that his presence, coupled with Devin McCourty at safety, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington as the right and star cornerbacks, and Steve Gregory’s improved play, the team is on the right track. It helps that Talib, as the bigger corner, can take away smaller receivers and essentially one half of the field at times. With only six targets in his direction this season, that’s becoming more and more clear.
We’ll see if this keeps up with a veteran slate of quarterbacks on the schedule in the next month, including Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton, and Drew Brees. By then, the fans should start feeling the same confidence the Patriots do.
Total defense rank
2013 - 7th
2012 - 25th
2011 - 31st
2010 - 25th
2009 - 11th
Passing defense rank
2013 - 4th
2012 - 29th
2011 - 31st
2010 - 30th
2009 - 12th
Tom Brady on what trust means to him
Brady has been taking his fair share of flack this week for being quite demonstrative of his anger during the team’s last game against the New York Jets. As we all know, he was particularly upset with his young group of receivers, who have clearly not been on the same page with him. While he laughed a little bit about the hubbub this week, he’s clearly cognizant that a big part of the development of those same young receivers – Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins – are his responsibility. And he knows they’re trying. But more than anything, he knows they have to build chemistry and do so quickly. So much so that he’s been peppered with the same variation of the same question over and over again: What does it take for a wide receiver to earn his trust? He answered that as fully and as best as he could this week.
“Well, it goes both ways,” he said. “It’s them trusting me that I’m going to put the ball in position for them to catch it and not get hit so that they can do things full speed and not worry about if I’m throwing them into something.
“It’s just a lot of work. It’s just a lot of repetition, it’s a lot of communication. The practice field and all these things we do in practice through walkthroughs, through meetings and so forth, hopefully they pay off. But you’ve just got to put the work in, and you’ve got to put the time in, and we’ve been doing certainly a lot of that. I can’t remember a year where we spent as much time together as we’ve spent since the spring, and it’s going to pay off at some point.
“Like I said after the game, hopefully the burden of our offense doesn’t fall on one position, and it can’t fall on just the receiver position or just the tight end position or just the quarterback position. It’s the whole offense, and there’s 11 players that have to contribute, and whoever’s out there has to be able to do their job. Each player we’re trying to attack something differently, and when your number is called you have to be prepared, you have to be able to make the plays. That’s why you’re on the team, to help us win games, and the more guys that we have that are capable of doing that, the better offense we’re going to be.”
The season is still young, and there’s plenty of time for Dobson, Thompkins, and Josh Boyce to improve and contribute.
The last time the Patriots saw the Buccaneers was merely a month ago as the two teams held joint practices in Foxborough. Of course, the only thing of significance to come out of that endeavor was Adrian Clayborn inspiring Tom Brady to dust off his knee brace. We’re sure Nate Solder doesn’t want to let that happen again.
Back in 2009, in the last Patriots-Buccaneers regular season meeting, Brady led New England to a 35-7 win at Wembley Stadium outside London. He had 308 yards and three touchdowns. But the Patriots’ win was set off by a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown by Brandon Meriweather.
Ah the good old days. Meriweather is in the news nowadays for making helmet-to-helmet hits. (Actually, that's 2009 all over again.)
Also of note, five Patriots starters remain from that 2009 team: Brady, Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer (who played left tackle), Vince Wilfork, and Jerod Mayo. Rob Ninkovich, Matthew Slater, and Stephen Gostkowski were on the roster as well.
Josh Freeman, the Buccaneers’ current starting quarterback, was a substitute for Josh Johnson in that game, going 2 of 4 passing for 16 yards.
What do you think?
Read this, link that
Adam 12, Chris Gasper, and I discussed the possibility of Terrell Owens playing for the Patriots on RadioBDC. Let’s just say, we’re not buying it. We also talked Buccaneers, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Zach Sudfeld.
Ben Volin has a great breakdown on the rookie learning curve for wide receivers.
Erik Frenz writes on his Going Deep blog that patience is the right call when it comes to the Patriots’ young receivers. He has some great examples.
Off site, Michael Rosenberg has a fantastic feature about former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham for TheMMQB.com. Before the advent of the read-option and soon-to-be stars RGIII, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Michael Vick, there was Cunningham, whose speed and powerful arm were unmatched. Take the history lesson.
My Week 3 NFL picks.
Tweet of the week
Next thing you know, wide receivers will be wearing helmet cameras and NFL teams will have a new way to communicate between players and coaches. Google Glass may in fact provide opportunities for this underdeveloped area of interest. The Rams certainly seemed excited about the possibilities.
After the Jets game, reader Seth e-mailed with this question about the Patriots receivers, which I believe has been on the minds of many:
I know it’s only week 2 and maybe a little early to overreact, but the receiving corp looks atrocious. As a fan, I know it’s easy to play GM and say “trade so and so for so and so” so I won’t put any specific trades out there. I am however going to ask a more general question because I worry about Amendola’s health, Gronk’s health and the inexperience of Dobson, Boyce and Thompkins. In your opinion, is there a receiver you know of that the Patriots could be targeting or is there a free agent that they’ve been talking to? Brandon Lloyd is the obvious free agent target, but I’m guessing that won’t happen. I just feel like management is wasting Brady’s final years with the crap they put around him.
If there were a free agent out there, I would say it's somebody who is at least familiar with the offense. Both Michael Jenkins and Lavelle Hawkins are still available after being cut by the Patriots early in camp. Jenkins is the more savvy veteran with 354 career receptions. Hawkins, in his sixth year, has only 72 career receptions. But he impressed in the preseason with the 49ers. I think Jenkins would be a solid choice. But the problem with turning to free agency, or even thinking about a trade, is that you have to make a determination that someone else doesn't belong. I don't believe the team is willing to give up on any of their rookies (Dobson, Thompkins, and Boyce), and they appear to be committed to each of their veterans (Edelman, Amendola, and Slater). A seventh receiver, by any stretch of the imagination, does not make sense.
What’s to come
- The Patriots host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. Game time is at 1 p.m. and it will be broadcast on FOX. We’ll have live coverage pregame, in-game, and postgame right here on Boston.com.
- After the Buccaneers game, the Patriots will travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons in their first big matchup of the season, Sunday Sept. 29.
- Alfonzo Dennard is due back in a Nebraska courtroom on Oct. 8 after admitting to violating his probation for a suspected DUI.