PITTSBURGH - The Patriots are going to the playoffs. They will win at least 12 games and have a bye in the first round. They might win once to get to the AFC Championship game. That would be a success to some people. But unless they get a lot better on defense, that will be the end of it.
The Patriots have won and will win a lot of games, and that is a credit to coach Bill Belichick. But against teams with a certain formula, they can’t compete. Not this year. Not with this team.
Belichick the general manager has let down Belichick the coach.
The Patriots simply don’t have enough talent to beat the elite teams in this league. Lucky for the Patriots, there are only a few of those - and most don’t reside in the AFC.
We saw one of them yesterday, as the Steelers ripped through the Patriots’ defense on their way to a 25-17 victory at Heinz Field that might as well have been 45-17.
The Steelers have an elite quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. He has maturing and multiple offensive weapons. And the Steelers have an offensive coordinator in Bruce Arians who isn’t afraid to press the issue against the Patriots.
There’s only one other team in the AFC, the Texans, that has a chance of executing offensively like that against the Patriots. The Chargers, Jets, and Ravens all have issues that will undo them. In the NFC, the Packers, Saints, Eagles, and Lions have the right formula to take down the Patriots.
And New England will beat up on all the other teams. It has Tom Brady, and playing soft against the pass but tighter in the red zone will be good enough. But against the top teams? The Patriots just won’t be able to get it done.
Look at what they put on the field defensively. Belichick is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. That’s because the talent is lacking. Right now, the Patriots have three defensive players considered good to elite: tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo (who has been average in the new scheme), and safety Patrick Chung (who has been marginalized by his weak supporting cast in the secondary).
Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Ty Law, Asante Samuel, and Rodney Harrison aren’t around anymore. The Patriots have four defensive starters who were drafted in the first two rounds: Wilfork, Mayo, Chung, and Devin McCourty. The rest of the players are castoffs and aren’t effective, especially in the secondary.
Kyle Arrington would be a nickel back in most places. With Ras-I Dowling on injured reserve - after injury-plagued high school and college careers - Arrington is the best the Patriots have. McCourty has lost his confidence, but at least he has hope and some success. Antwaun Molden, Phillip Adams, Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown, and James Ihedigbo?
They’re not good enough, and other teams know it.
“It was leaking a little in the back end so they were giving us a lot more opportunities to do a lot of different things, and I think we took advantage of it,’’ said Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.
The Patriots have no good young pass rushers, which hit home hard when Jermaine Cunningham, a second-round pick last year, was a healthy scratch. You can only get so much out of Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Mark Anderson, and Albert Haynesworth.
The Patriots would prefer to rush four players, but they can’t get home or the teams are simply releasing the ball too quickly. Because the Patriots aren’t good enough in the back, they’re playing mostly zone. Zone only works if you get pressure. The Patriots tried blitzing the Steelers, but they don’t have any good pass rushers at linebacker.
Belichick is about out of moves, and he has only himself to blame for the lack of success in the draft. Where’s the hope for the future with this defense?
Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotchery saw a lot of the Patriots defense during seven seasons with the Jets. He knows these Patriots are scuffling.
“When the ball is being moved up and down the field like that, it’s all about communication,’’ he said. “They have a bunch of young guys in there. Some new pieces. Any time you have young guys in there, the communication isn’t going to be where it needs to be.
“With the weapons that we have, we knew we would have some opportunities. You just don’t have enough defensive backs to cover all of the weapons that we have. It’s going to be like that for any team, but more so against them. They released Leigh Bodden and the rookie that they drafted [Dowling], he’s on injured reserve. There aren’t many guys that you can put out there. That was our plan, to come out and throw the ball. And we did that extremely well.’’
The Patriots have allowed six of the seven quarterbacks they’ve faced throw for more than 300 yards. Roethlisberger had 365 and he was barely hurried. He was sacked five times, but almost all of them were coverage sacks when he decided to eat the ball.
“I think we’ve shown that we have a lot of weapons,’’ Cotchery said. “You’d want to have everyone available for this game. Once you see [Bodden] get released and you see them put a guy on IR, you’re like, ‘OK, what else is left?’ You know? Yes, I was definitely surprised to see him released. Any time you have a veteran presence on your team, it hurts the young guys.’’
But Cotchery also said that because Belichick is the coach, the Patriots still have a chance.
“The thing is about Belichick, I watched them over a number of years, it’s always a building process,’’ Cotchery said. “So later in the year last year, those guys dominated defensively. I felt like they were really beating up some teams. So he’s always building, he always has a plan. He doesn’t do things that are just knee-jerk reactions or anything of that nature. He has a plan, I know he has a plan. I know the guys on the team know he has a plan. So, I think they’ll get better.
“He’s a brilliant mind. You have to give him credit for that.’’
Belichick the coach is brilliant. But Belichick the general manager has left himself short on talent against the best teams. The Patriots will win a lot more games. But they’re not going to win the important ones. Not until the talent gets better.
That won’t happen this year.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GregABedard