With the Air Brady offensive attack of a season ago just a melancholy memory at this point — thanks for nothin’, Bernard Pollard — the weighty burden now falls on the Patriots defense if the team is going to achieve the goals that seemed so attainable before their franchise quarterback’s left knee was turned into pastrami.
To put it more specifically: The Patriots, 3-1 but still a work in progress behind understudy Matt Cassel, would have an infinitely better long-term prognosis this season if only someone would step up and become a Genuine Playmaker on defense.
And the sooner, the better.
In recent seasons, that player was cornerback Asante Samuel. (Yup, we’re conveniently ignoring his famous final stonehanded scene in the Super Bowl. You know how much he meant.) But Samuel backed up the Brink’s truck and bolted for the green of Philadelphia as a free agent in the offseason, leaving the Patriots not only with a gaping void in their defensive backfield, but without the one defender with a knack for making a clutch play when the moment called for it.
A cursory glance at the other supposed contenders in the AFC tells you how much of an effect one or two defensive dynamos can have. The Indianapolis Colts, ever dangerous even though they’re off to a puzzling 2-2 start, are led by reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders . . . that is, at least for the 8 to 12 games per season the safety is healthy enough to play. It’s not by accident that the Colts always seem to make sure their human missile is ready to go against the Patriots.
The 5-0 Tennessee Titans have emerged as perhaps the conference’s elite team, and the bulk of the credit belongs to defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who is violent, mean, immovable and relentless . . . essentially, the man-beast Richard Seymour used to be.
Conversely, the surprising early struggles of this week’s opponent, the 2-3 San Diego Chargers, are tied directly to the season-ending injury to linebacker Shawne Merriman. Lights out, indeed.
Unfortunately, a glance at the Patriots’ depth chart doesn’t offer too many rays of hope, either — at least when it comes to the most established, familiar and decorated names. Among them:
Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork: The Patriots’ defensive line is widely regarded as one of the two or three best in the NFL, and its members boast a total of six Pro Bowl berths and six Super Bowl rings. Each individual has long since established his own good name. But Wilfork, that human meat locker, is more run-stuffer than playmaker, and the same goes for the steady, if unspectacular, Warren. Which brings us to Seymour. He’s considered among the game’s premier defensive linemen, and a few seasons ago he actually deserved that accolade. Recently, though, whether because of injuries or complacency, he’s become something between an enigma and an underachiever. The best thing that could happen is for Seymour to find the form of his early seasons. Considering his name didn’t appear on the stat sheet against the Niners, it’s foolish to depend on it.
Mike Vrabel: The ultimate Bill Belichick player has countless positive attributes — intelligence, versatility and vastly underrated athletic gifts, for starters. At this point in his 12-year NFL career, however, he’s a wonderful supporting actor who always makes the movie better, but not someone whose name belongs on the marquee.
Adalius Thomas: Perceived as the pass-rushing defensive end/linebacker prototype when he was plucked from the Ravens as a free agent before last season, he has made his share of NFL Films-worthy plays as a Patriot (rumor has it Leon Washington is still curled up in the fetal position on the Meadowlands turf). He’s off to an encouraging start in ’08, but given the disappearing act he pulled a season ago, we need to see more before we’re true believers.
Rodney Harrison: His uncommonly sharp football mind still puts him a step ahead mentally, but nowadays his aging legs frequently leave him a step behind. He’s merely average now.
Tedy Bruschi: See the Harrison comment . . . but in his case, make that two steps behind, maybe three. There’s a reason undrafted free agent Gary Guyton is siphoning ol’ No. 54’s playing time. No one ever said there was a place for sentiment in the cold, cruel business of football.
Ellis Hobbs: He desperately hungers to be that guy, and it’s a tribute to his mental toughness (or, if you’re the cynical sort, his ability to self-delude) that his confidence wasn’t destroyed after he was toasted on Plaxico Burress’ winning…ah, hell, you know the play I mean. But Hobbs needs one more growth spurt, and that’s probably not going to happen at age 25. Besides, for every time he reminds you of Ty Law, he tosses in a couple of intensely aggravating Chris Canty flashbacks.
Which brings us, in our usual convoluted and roundabout way, to the point of this whole exercise: If the Patriots are going to achieve their goals, the kids on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage must mature in a hurry.
That means you, Brandon Meriweather. And you, too, Jerod Mayo.
On the surface, it’s a reasonable expectation. After all, they are the team’s successive No. 1 picks, safety Meriweather out of Miami last year, then linebacker Mayo from Tennessee in April.
Meriweather’s learning curve has been somewhat steep — he rarely saw the field until the end of his rookie season, and he still struggles to be in the right place at the right time — but he’s rangy, tough, fast and most important, improving. There’s something there.
As for Mayo, his importance is already evident — he rarely leaves the field in any defensive situation, a staggeringly impressive feat for a rookie in Belichick’s system — but the Patrick Willis comparisons are a bit hyperbolic for now. He’s still not that noticeable, you know? Of course, that’s nothing a game-saving interception or a couple of well-timed, tailback-crushing hits wouldn’t change.
We can only hope such daydreams become reality soon. As for the Patriots? Well, they’re kind of counting on it.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org