I hate to sound like a sportswriter on that bad ESPN show on at 5pm, but the title is to catch readers' attention. If you watched Mondays' beating on ABC, you know that the old lynchpin of the Patriot's success, defense, is now a weakness. The Patriots are now suffering from two problems that affect how they perform on the field that they previously could avoid: success and injuries. Success will strip players away who are looking for more money and are courted by other teams. Injuries can remove your biggest playmakers or limit their impact. Teams that ride the top of the wave for several years eventually suffer from these two problems, which leads to problems on the field. Playing in the postseason adds 2-3 games to your season each year; that is extra wear & tear on your body. Postseason success can encourage some players hold out or make some role players more attractive to other teams. Who would not make the leap from role player to big contract new addition for a few million dollars more? These two factors eat away at teams' depth and create situations like the 2005 Patriots' defense at the midseason point.
Remarkable but true, the Patriots's defense is ranked at no. 29 in a defensive value rating system by Football Outsiders. Compare that ranking to the #6 and #3 rankings of the last two years. This is the biggest reason for their 4-4 record and need for late game comebacks. If you look at their stats, they have 13 sacks and have created 6 turnovers after 8 games. If you look at their depth chart, you see that their cornerbacks have 1 INT. They have now given up 81 points in their two home losses(San Diego and Indy). Their run defense cannot stop anyone (Football Outsiders has them ranked 2nd to last), and that does not help a pass defense that needs to have deep safety help.
This weak defense reared its ugly head versus the Colts on Monday night. They created one turnover and did not get a single sack. They failed to create a lot of pressure on Peyton Manning, which allowed him to make his reads and hit his throws. Manning had the time to hit the 10-15 yard routes that he failed to hit in the playoffs last year. The defense managed to hold the Colts to 3.5 ypc, but if you listened at watercoolers, the talk was how it seemed the Edge gained 5 yards each carry. This is where James's size comes in handy, running at depleted defensive lines to weaken pass rushers. The other key stat was that the Colts converted on 12 of 17 3rd downs. Drives were sustained, and the defense which is already thin, wore down more. Despite his nine tackles, Teddy Bruschi looked slow and easily moved by blockers. The decisions to go for 4th downs in the Colts' territory & onside kicks showed Belicheck's lack of confidence in the defense and the need to score TDs versus FGs.
The defense is in this situation because of injuries and free agency/salary issues. The depth chart linked to above shows the amount of injuries (excluding Rodney Harrison). The replacements are not producing like past performers. The great depth the Pats had on their defensive line has been ravaged by injuries and the departure of Ted Washington, who was extremely important to the run defense in '03. Ted's ability to take up space & blockers made it an easier time for the Patriots' linebackers. Let's also make it clear that the Patriots linebacker corps is old and slowing down; it has one starter under 30, Rosevelt Colvin. Colvin gives them speed and power, but he has not been the same since his awful hip injury. Some people might wonder why this had not been taken care of in the last 2 drafts. I would not be surprised if an 'edge rusher' or an inside linebacker is drafted by the Patriots next April. Secondary depth is nonexistent because of injuries and the departure of playmaking veterans like Lawyer Milloy and Ty Law. Those two men have created 6 turnovers on their own this season; equal to the entire Patriots team.
Right now, the Patriots look like a mediocre team that has a good passing attack. By the end of the season, some starters will return and more playing experience for recent top draft picks on defense could help. Without the normal defensive line rotaton, that line could be worn down by week 17. They could end up 11-5 and on a roll going into the playoffs, but first, they need to plug the holes on defense. Belicheck's "genius" mind is going to have to work overtime to make this happen.