On Football

For Patriots defense, nowhere to go but up

Linebacker Brandon Spikes put a hurting on Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on this play, but paid a penalty for it when he was flagged for roughing the passer.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes put a hurting on Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on this play, but paid a penalty for it when he was flagged for roughing the passer.

FOXBOROUGH — Delete it.

Go ahead. Hit “list” on your DVR, highlight “Bills at Patriots,” and then hit the red button. Unless you like the sensation of getting right up to a heart attack, and then backing off.

And if for some reason you were saving the Ravens, Seahawks, or Jets games as well — hoping to have time to cut a 12-second “Ras-I Dowling 2012 highlights video” for YouTube? — erase those, as well.


For that matter, cleanse your memory of all of it.

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The 2012 season starts today for the Patriots.

That’s when cornerback Aqib Talib, acquired from the Buccaneers, walks into Gillette Stadium. He’ll have his feet washed to signify the absolution of any previous sins, and have the ceremonial blue Patriots cleansing robe slipped on by Robert and Jonathan Kraft to signify Talib’s fresh start with the team.

Forget Shakespeare and all that “past is prologue” nonsense. The Patriots stock playbooks, not playwrights.

Talib is now a Patriot, from this moment forward.


And make no mistake, the Patriots will be a better team with Talib starting at cornerback.

How much better? Who knows? But it has to be better than what we saw on Sunday in the Patriots’ 37-31 victory over the Bills at Gillette Stadium.

What you saw there was rock bottom.

The Patriots, coming off a bye week that included extra study and practice time, took the field and couldn’t stop the run (162 yards), hit quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick four times officially (three sacks), allowed him to complete 68 percent of his passes (second only to Fitzpatrick’s game against the Titans), the Bills to set a franchise record with 35 first downs, and to put up a season-high 481 total yards.

That last mark broke their previous high set against, you guessed it, the Patriots.


“Overall, we made some plays and we did some things well, but there were other things that just weren’t as sharp as what they need to be, or what they should be,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Yeah, we’ve got to definitely do a better job on those. It was far from perfect.”

Apparently, the Arctic Circle is far from warm.

All you really need to know about the state of the Patriots’ defense is a guy who has two suspensions since the start of the 2010 season (personal conduct, performance-enhancing drugs) — in addition to four other violent incidents since being drafted in 2008 — and was in the midst of a suspension when acquired, is riding in on a white horse.

As for what happened on Sunday, I’m not in the business of making excuses for the Patriots, and I’m not going to do that here.

But what I will say is the Patriots are not built defensively to stop Chan Gailey’s Bills. What they do with the spread offense, and the amount of small and quick passing weapons combined with the speedy and tough running duo of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, is a mismatch for Belichick’s scheme, at least in the regular season.

The next time one of your buddies wants to talk about how awesome the Patriots’ front seven is and how they might have one of the league’s best linebacking trios in Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower, like this is 2003, go tell them to watch either matchup against the Bills. It was a clinic in how not to defend intermediate seam passes.

What you will see is a defensive scheme that looked like a relic playing against the future. And how amazing is that considering the Patriots’ offense is on the cutting edge?

You can point to what the Patriots did in the Super Bowl against the 2001 “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams, but there are a lot of differences, not the least of which is the prohibition of downfield pass contact. Even still, it would be unwise to underestimate a Belichick game plan with an extra week of preparation.

But we digress.

We’ll put off a discussion about whether Belichick’s scheme could be obsolete a few years down the road, because it isn’t right now. Chip Kelly is still at Oregon for the time being, and the rest of his speed-spread fraternity won’t be changing the NFL any time soon. And Belichick will have time to adjust.

Just like for the rest of this season.

The Patriots will not have to face another offense like this the rest of the way. The Bills are unique to the NFL. Thank goodness they don’t have a consistent quarterback or competitive defense, because their season is over.

The Patriots will see mostly conventional offenses the rest of the way. And no matter what you think you’ve seen so far — we told you, burn those memories — the Patriots do have more than a puncher’s chance this season.

If last year’s team, which needed meaningful contributions on defense from Tracy White, James Ihedigbo, Shaun Ellis, Sterling Moore, Antwaun Molden, and Julian Edelman, reached the Super Bowl and held a 17-9 lead with 11:20 left in the third quarter, then certainly this group can.

The ideal scenario is for Patrick Chung to return from (another) injury healthy and with his hair on fire headed toward unrestricted free agency. That would give them a secondary, in order of talent and effectiveness, of Talib, Devin McCourty, Chung, Steve Gregory, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Tavon Wilson, and Marquice Cole.

That group is young and inexperienced, but it is talented. It’s a world’s better than last year’s group. Are they playing like it now? Certainly not. It’s up to Belichick to find the right combination of players between cornerback and safety to get the job done. His track record is sterling in this regard. I believe Belichick will do that until it doesn’t happen. And then I’ll pass out.

And we also advocate for Belichick to take over the secondary, if not the entire defense, down the stretch. Matt Patricia, the defensive coordinator, and assistants Josh Boyer (cornerbacks) and Brian Flores (safeties) appear overmatched, though Flores seems to have a fine future.

It’s time for Belichick to stop telling those guys how he wants it done, and just do it himself, which he did at one point last season with the secondary.

Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can handle the offense just fine, as long as Belichick rips the 252 pages out of McDaniels’s playbook dedicated to deceptive plays that never seem to work. (Toss sweep out of the shotgun, and a play-action, fake-reverse pass on the final drive, really?)

It starts this week against the upstart but overmatched Colts. Talib will likely draw receiver Reggie Wayne. The Patriots will also put a safety over the top, and I expect something along the lines of the one catch for 4 yards that Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals had against the Talib-less Patriots in Week 2. Wayne’s 69 receptions are almost double that of the nearest Colt. When was the last time the Patriots failed to minimize the primary weapon of a limited offensive team?

The one thing going against this team is that the final seven games are not going to be the cakewalk they were last season, when the best quarterback they faced was a pick ’em between Rex Grossman and Fitzpatrick.

Looming back-to-back home games against the Texans and 49ers will be valuable chances for the Patriots to not only measure where they are, but gain confidence heading into the postseason.

If the Patriots beat both the Texans and 49ers, would anyone remember what transpired earlier in the season? Of course not.

And since both teams feature conventional run-based offenses that are in the wheelhouse of these Patriots, does anyone think they couldn’t hold their own against Matt Schaub and Alex Smith?

The one redeeming thing about the Patriots’ defense, which was on display again on Sunday, was its uncanny ability to make big plays when needed.

If it can find a way to add discipline and consistency to the playmaking, the Patriots will have something. The talent, especially with Talib, is there. Now Belichick needs to fit the pieces of the puzzle together like he always does.

Forget about the hollow victory over the Bills. It’s over.

The rest of the season starts today.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.