Another Sunday for the Patriots. Another mediocre performance. And mounting frustration about the performance of the secondary.
It’s all certainly warranted.
But it’s time to put the focus on the pass rush. There isn’t nearly enough of it.
And in what certainly will frustrate fans even more: That’s probably by design.
First, the state of the pass rush.
In Sunday’s 29-26 overtime victory over the Jets, the Patriots had their worst pass rush of the season.
Oh, sure, they had four sacks, which were a season high. Terrific. Too bad sacks are about the worst statistic to measure the effectiveness of the pass rush.
Sacks are certainly nice considering the loss of down and distance, but they are deceiving in multiple ways. Just look at the Jets game. Two of the sacks came after Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez held the ball for 6.66 seconds (Rob Ninkovich) and 5.56 seconds (Dont’a Hightower). Those weren’t pressure sacks; they were caused by good coverage. There are no plays designed for the quarterback to hold the ball for four seconds, let alone six.
In addition to the sacks, the Patriots generated two hurries and two knockdowns, which I tabulate. Combined, those three categories give what I think is a better indication of how a defense is affecting the quarterback: total quarterback pressures.
Considering Sanchez dropped back to pass 48 times, including penalties, the Patriots generated pressure on 16.7 percent of the snaps. That edges out the Ravens and Broncos games (19.1 percent) for worst pass rush for the season.
This is not an aberration, this is a trend.
Through seven games, the Patriots have 72 total pressures in 292 dropbacks (24.7 percent).
Through seven games in 2011, the Patriots had 85 in 311 (27.3).
Both are a huge drop from where the Patriots were in 2010 at this point: 98 in 288 (34 percent).
Is it any wonder that the Patriots are on pace for 87 pass plays of more than 20 yards this season, after having 79 in 2011 and 55 in 2010?
Complementary football. If you have the four-man pass rush of the Giants, you can win a Super Bowl with an injury-ravaged secondary.
The Patriots don’t, so we’ll have to see what happens.
What coach Bill Belichick isn’t going to do is blitz, at least not against quarterbacks he thinks will self-destruct.
He sent an extra rusher at Sanchez on just 8.3 percent of the snaps. For the season, the Patriots have blitzed 11 percent of the time. They averaged 21 percent in 2010-11.
Four games this season — Ravens (4.3 percent), Cardinals (6.9), Bills (7), and Jets – rank in the bottom seven games for blitz percentage dating to the start of the 2010 season.
The lack of blitzes is probably partly due to the problems in the secondary — Belichick is not going to take a guy out of coverage when they’re having trouble doing it fully staffed – and partly to Belichick’s patented “play the percentages” defense.
Why would he give Sanchez more room to throw if Belichick believes Sanchez will make a mistake without being induced (which ended up happening)?
Sure, the stats look terrible – 68.3 percent completion rate, 328 yards — but Belichick only cares about the victory, which easily could have slipped away.
The problem is, Belichick lives by his mantra — very well, considering his regular-season record — and dies by it as well. He was probably thrilled that Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson had to settle for so many deep throws. But Wilson ended up hitting on most of them, because of coverage and pressure.
The Patriots are either going to have to get settled in the back end, which would allow for more blitzes, or get better four-man pressure.
First-round pick Chandler Jones has been nothing short of a godsend. He has 25 pressures in his first seven games (9.2 percent of his rushes), which is better than where Andre Carter was at this time last season (15, 7.2 percent).
Rob Ninkovich is who he always is: 5.2 percent in ’11; 5.5 percent this season.
The dropoff has come with the situational pass rusher. Mark Anderson would come in last season, kick Carter inside, and was effective (7.7 percent). Jermaine Cunningham has not come close to matching that production (1.9 percent).
This is where the decision to sign and then cut tackle Jonathan Fanene hurts. He was supposed to help rush the passer.
There is hope that Myron Pryor can provide some help; pass rushing was his forte before he got hurt in the first game last year. And Hightower is the best blitzing linebacker by far.
However it happens, the pass rush is going to have to improve. The defensive backs are not responsible for this alone.
Here are the positional ratings against the Jets:
Quarterback (Rating: 4 out of 5)
Tom Brady rebounded extremely well from his performance in Seattle, against the team that gives him the most fits because of the amount of different looks. The one second-quarter sack (3.75 seconds) was on Brady. He needed to unload that ball to Brandon Lloyd, who was open. Outside of that, very few poor throws or decisions by Brady, although it’s curious why Wes Welker wasn’t thrown to more early. Brady had to go up top to Lloyd on occasion because the Jets kept pinching the safeties. Terrific play by Brady on the first touchdown to Rob Gronkowski. He was under some pressure, then delivered an absolutely perfect touch pass. He threw an important laser to Gronkowski to start the final drive into a bunch of traffic.
Running back (4 out of 5)
Shane Vereen (6.1 yards per carry) had impressive stats, but Stevan Ridley was the more impressive runner. Vereen will get what’s blocked — and he had some huge holes — but to be more of an every-down back, he is going to have to show more toughness running inside. Nice job by Vereen, on his first carry, of being patient, allowing Aaron Hernandez to set his block (and hold), before Vereen used his quickness to bounce outside for 14 yards. Not a good run on his next carry. Too much hesitation on the stretch play, which he tends to do. Ridley had a great 10-yard run after the safety. Rookie linebacker Demario Davis slammed into the hole, but Ridley avoided him and broke Yeremiah Bell’s tackle.
Receivers (2 out of 5)
Not a good job by this group overall. Five drops (two by Lloyd, who had a forgettable game) and some really shoddy run blocking. On Ridley’s no-gain run near midfield in the second quarter, Daniel Fells didn’t block LaRon Landry at all. The Patriots ran the same play after the safety and this time, with Hernandez in Fells’s spot, and Hernandez also missed Landry. Time to practice that play a little more. Gronkowski had a tough time as the game went on. His injuries show up in his blocking, where he’s nowhere near his 2011 form. But the man, despite a drop, still can catch the ball.
Offensive line (3.5 out of 5)
If you were grading on a curve, with Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly out, this might be a terrific performance considering Brady hit the turf just twice (once by his own doing). But there were nine hurries. Donald Thomas (one total pressure) might have been the best of the bunch, and the holding call against him was terrible. He got flagged for manhandling Daniel Muir. After Thomas, the performances went: Ryan Wendell (1.5 pressures), a surprising Nick McDonald (one, stuffed run), Nate Solder (2.5 pressures), and Sebastian Vollmer (three pressures). Great team blocking on Vereen’s 16-yard run on the penultimate play of the third quarter. Wendell reach-blocked the three-technique on the outside shoulder of McDonald, who worked a combo block to the next level, and Thomas also did a great job. No head bob from Wendell on the snap this week. Somebody was paying attention.
Defensive line (3 out of 5)
Not as sound a performance as the Patriots are used to. Jones (2.5 pressures, 1.5 run stuffs) and Vince Wilfork (two solo stuffs, two half-stuffs) had their normal impact play, but they were not immune to the gap and containment issues that were unusually prevalent. On the Tim Tebow third-down run on the opening series to the 1-yard line, Wilfork and Brandon Spikes both crashed down out of their gaps and would have allowed a touchdown if Jerod Mayo didn’t bail them out. Jones (season-low 5.1 pressure percentage) did find it more difficult to work against left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson. The Patriots stuffed runs for 1 yard or less outside of short yardage on 29.4 percent of their attempts, which was eighth-best back to the start of 2010. But overall, the Jets did surprisingly well on the ground with 12 rushes of at least 4 yards.
Linebackers (4.5 out of 5)
Ninkovich (1.5 sacks, two knockdowns, forced/recovery fumble) and Spikes were terrific. Spikes was in four stuffs (two solo), delivered a brutal hit to Shonn Greene, and shed blocks well. New England needs Hightower (a high-impact 36 of 82 snaps) back in the lineup full time. Mayo gutted through a shoulder injury, but he continues to have trouble in coverage.
Secondary (2 out of 5)
Some marginal improvement out of this group with a total of six passes defensed and an interception. Alfonzo Dennard had two coverage issues, two penalties, and failed to get off a block on Greene’s 8-yard run after the safety. Corners are integral to the Patriots’ run defense, and you’ll sit if you don’t execute. Huge missed tackle by Ras-I Dowling (two penalties) against Dustin Keller on third down in the second quarter. Kyle Arrington was beaten three times on bow routes to the sideline by Jeremy Kerley. Playing inside technique there toward the sideline goes against conventional wisdom, but the Patriots have to teach it that way. Arrington is not dumb; he kept playing it the exact same way. The coaches must want the low-percentage throw across the field to the sideline. Most other teams want the corner to funnel the receiver inside toward the one deep help safety. What a terrible throw by Sanchez on the interception. Hope Dennard sent the Jets quarterback a thank you note for that gift. At safety, Tavon Wilson was OK, but they need better play there long-term. And Devin McCourty was spot-on at free safety. He should stay there, in place of either Patrick Chung or Steve Gregory. Take your pick.
Special teams (4 out of 5)
Terrific job by Stephen Gostkowski (two pressure field goals) and Zoltan Mesko (4.49 hang time, four of six punts inside the 20), and obviously McCourty’s touchdown. But McCourty’s fumble was huge, and the kickoff coverage was suspect.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Situation: The Patriots led, 29-26, in overtime as the Jets were driving and faced second and 10 at their 40-yard line.
What happened: The Patriots played “two man” coverage — two deep safeties splitting the field, with man coverage underneath. It’s somewhat puzzling why Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez (6) didn’t throw to the left slot receiver, Jeremy Kerley, who had some daylight against the coverage of cornerback Kyle Arrington. Other than that, everything was covered. Once Sanchez didn’t throw on the first read, Jermaine Cunningham (96) easily beat right guard Brandon Moore (65) to the inside and was able to grab Sanchez around the ankles. End Rob Ninkovich (50) sped around right tackle Austin Howard (77) and finished off the faltering Sanchez for a game-winning strip-sack/fumble recovery.
ON HIS GAME
Rob Ninkovich, linebacker/end
Of the eight quarterback pressures the Patriots had as a team, the veteran had 3.5 (1.5 sacks, two knockdowns) and added a tackle for a loss and the game-ending play.
OFF HIS GAME
Brandon Lloyd, receiver
Despite getting the most playing time of any receiver, his contribution was neglible outside of two drops, including a possible touchdown that was perfectly thrown. On his one catch (in eight targets), Lloyd went to the ground, again, before contact.