FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots keep drafting defensive backs in the early rounds. One of these years they may find one who lives up to that status.
For the third straight season, the Patriots have one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL, specializing in allowing big plays.
Clearly, their secondary is a primary problem.
“We have to play better in the secondary and this team will be better,” said cornerback Devin McCourty, a first-round pick in 2010.
At Seattle last Sunday, New England gave up touchdown passes by rookie Russell Wilson of 50 yards to Doug Baldwin and 46 to Sidney Rice. A pass to Golden Tate gained 51 yards, and safety Patrick Chung, a second-round choice in 2009, was called for a 40-yard pass interference penalty. Rice’s touchdown with 1:18 left and Steven Hauschka’s extra point gave the Seahawks a 24-23 win.
The long completions are becoming painfully commonplace.
The Patriots have allowed 13 of 30 yards or more, a big reason they’re just 3-3. Tom Brady has thrown only five passes for that distance in the six games.
Five of the six quarterbacks the Patriots have faced have completed passes for at least 30 yards. Wilson, Peyton Manning, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Joe Flacco did it three times and Jake Locker once.
“Obviously, you never want to give up big plays, regardless what phase of the game it is,” said Matthew Slater, a wide receiver and special teams captain who was forced into action at safety last season by injuries. “Big plays are momentum plays so, in that respect, a lot of us have the responsibility not to give up the big play and to make the big play.”
The Patriots have tried plenty of defensive backs, hoping they can fulfill that responsibility.
They’ve drafted seven of them in the first two rounds in the last six years. Only four remain. Is that because coach Bill Belichick’s defensive system is tougher to learn than others or because the three no longer with the team weren’t as good as Belichick thought when he drafted them?
Those three — Brandon Meriweather, Terrence Wheatley and Darius Butler — haven’t done well after leaving the Patriots. And cornerback Ras-I Dowling, slowed by injuries after being taken in the second round last year, hasn’t lived up to expectations this year.
The turnover in the secondary has been constant.
Of the 10 defensive backs who played for the Patriots in 2009, four didn’t play for them the next year. Of the nine they used in 2010, five were gone in 2011. They tried 13 different players in the secondary in 2011 and eight are no longer with the team. That includes James Ihedigbo, who started 12 of the 16 games he played.
None of the current defensive backs can be counted on week after week.
McCourty made the Pro Bowl as a rookie but has been plagued by defensive pass interference calls this year. Starting cornerback Kyle Arrington tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions last season, but was replaced by rookie Alfonzo Dennard, a seventh-rounder, after allowing the 50-yard touchdown to Baldwin on Seattle’s second series.
The other two regular starters, safeties Steve Gregory and Chung, have been nicked up. Gregory missed the last two games with a hip injury and Chung left Sunday’s game after hurting his shoulder.
So on the decisive touchdown pass to Rice, the Patriots used only four defensive backs with rookie draft picks Tavon Wilson (second round) and Nate Ebner (sixth) at safety. Rice got by Wilson and Ebner came over too late to help.
“Early in your career, everything’s a learning experience and they’re getting plenty of learning experiences now,” said Gregory, in his first year as a Patriot after signing as a free agent from San Diego. “But they’re working really hard at trying to become better football players.”
Wilson put the blame on himself.
“I’m held accountable just like everybody else on this team,” he said. “I don’t expect them to take no slack on me because I’m a rookie. I’ve got to make the play.”
But why didn’t Belichick put more defensive backs on the field to help the rookies, knowing that the Seahawks would pass with little time left and a six-point deficit?
“I think we had enough people back there on paper,” he said. “I don’t think there was anything wrong with the call. I think we could have played it better, which includes coaching it to be played better. … We would have had to cover it if we were in something else as well.”
The Patriots could catch a break next Sunday when they face the New York Jets. Mark Sanchez has had a tough season and threw for just 82 yards in last Sunday’s 35-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
The way New England’s secondary is playing, that number could be much higher.
“I have played some safety and it is much harder than it may look,” Slater said. “We believe in every last one of them, wouldn’t want any other guy back there than the guys that have been back there, and we stand behind them 100 percent.”
It’s the receivers who get behind them who are causing the problems.
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