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A Requiem for the Patriots Defense

A cast of practice squad castaways and past-their-prime veterans has turned New England into a welcome foe for opposing quarterbacks

Were you open downfield against the Patriots on Sunday? Chances are that you weren’t, but most able-bodied men in the Pittsburgh area on Sunday probably could have run a 15-yard dig against New England and picked up their first NFL catch without really being bothered. In a game that felt nowhere near as close as the final score, the Steelers simply bludgeoned a dismal Patriots pass defense with pass after pass. In fact, Ben Roethlisberger very clearly left some points on the table by missing open receivers. The Patriots looked like they very well might have the worst pass defense in football this weekend. And nobody should be surprised.

The Patriots have been preparing for this day for several years now. They just have very little to show for their preparation. Over the past five seasons, the Patriots have used 11 picks in the first three rounds of the NFL draft on defensive players. Only three of those players started on Sunday, and only one — safety Patrick Chung — has been playing at an above-average level this season. Three more (linebacker Jerod Mayo, cornerback Ras-I Dowling, and defensive lineman Ron Brace) are injured. Linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, a second-round pick in 2010, was a healthy scratch. The other four players have all been cut, including three players who would have been important cogs in the New England secondary if they’d developed. If Matt Millen had made these same 11 picks, we’d be laughing at him.

Instead, New England is left starting a group of underathletic journeymen and past-their-prime spare parts, a defense full of misfit toys. Their 11 starters on Sunday included a pair of undrafted free agents (Kyle Love and Gary Guyton), two players signed off of other teams’ practice squads (Rob Ninkovich and Kyle Arrington), two Jets castoffs (Shaun Ellis and James Ihedigbo), and 32-year-old pass rusher Andre Carter, who lost his job as a member of that legendary Redskins front seven last season. Unwanted veteran free agents like Antwaun Molden and Mark Anderson see significant snaps as reserves, and if Albert Haynesworth ever stayed healthy, so would he. The Patriots offense has Tom Brady to serve as the centerpiece that makes everyone else look and play better. On the defense, Vince Wilfork is a very talented lineman, but there’s no way he can have the impact on the rest of his teammates that a Hall of Fame quarterback can. It’s just not realistic.

Carter serves as the primary member of the Patriots’ pass rush, which has fluctuated from disappointing to nonexistent over the past few seasons. After Mike Vrabel picked up 12.5 sacks in 2007, the Patriots simply haven’t gotten consistent pressure from one player or one position. The last player drafted and developed by the Patriots to put up a season with more than five sacks was Tully Banta-Cain, taken in the seventh round of the 2003 draft. Cunningham was supposed to offer some ability as a pass rusher, but he now has one sack through his first 16 games. Before sacking Roethlisberger five times in 55 dropbacks on Sunday, New England was 30th in the league in sack rate.1 And those five sacks were almost exclusively of the coverage variety, as Roethlisberger — who has been sacked more frequently than any active starting quarterback besides Michael Vick — spent extra seconds in the pocket waiting for the perfect throw.

The Patriots were able to patch over their problems last season with the balm we discussed in our team preview — turnovers. They had an unsustainably high turnover ratio and takeaway percentage last year, and both those figures have declined in 2011. The only thing that’s really kept them afloat in 2011 has been the long fields provided to them by the New England offense; even when Tom Brady turns the ball over, it’s usually been deep inside opposition territory. The 73 possessions the Patriots have faced have started with an average of 76 yards to go for a touchdown, the deepest starting field position in football. Even as the Patriots offense struggled on Sunday, Pittsburgh didn’t start a single drive from outside their own 33-yard line until there was 2:35 left in the game. Against a team that was allowing a league-leading 39.4 yards per drive heading into the game, the Steelers produced 28 first downs. During the first three quarters of the game, Pittsburgh had seven possessions and went three-and-out just once. Their other six drives each went for 52 yards or more, and only the two-minute drill failed to run at least five and a half minutes off the clock. Those drives only produced 23 points because the Steelers struggled to cash in once they got to the red zone. This game very easily could have been a 37- or 40-point performance from the Steelers. That’s how bad the Patriots were on defense.

The real problem for the Pats is that this isn’t likely to get better. Mayo will get healthy, but after the Patriots placed Dowling on IR and released Leigh Bodden this week, there’s no great cornerback about to suddenly appear in their secondary.2 Teams like the Jets and Cowboys were strangely hesitant to get in a shootout with the Patriots, but any team with even a decent passing game is going to want to fling the ball around 40 times and force the New England secondary to make plays. Considering that the Patriots will likely have to make it through either the Bills, Chargers, or Steelers in the AFC playoffs, it’s hard to imagine them getting very far without a sudden, unexpected improvement in the play of their pass defense. Again.

Two True

Why aren’t the Panthers just going for a two-point conversion all of the time?

OK, so the Panthers shouldn’t go for two when they’re down one or in a tie game in the fourth quarter. In situations where one point is obviously valuable, they should be taking the single point. But in situations where the Panthers would automatically be going for one, it seems like they might be able to gain a competitive advantage by going for two.

The math is pretty simple. Olindo Mare will convert his extra points about 99.5 percent of the time. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say that choosing to kick the extra point will be worth one point. If the Panthers can convert on more than 50 percent of their short-yardage runs, it would be profitable for them to go for two more often than not.

And the Panthers are a rather remarkable rushing offense in short yardage. They’ve run the ball 41 times with three yards to go or less this year, and they’ve converted 29 of them. That’s a success rate of 70.7 percent. Perhaps the Panthers won’t be quite that successful on two-point conversions, but it’s reasonable to infer that they would probably succeed more than 50 percent of the time.

Giveth Away

Ken Whisenhunt screwed up. When the Ravens advanced the ball to the Arizona five-yard line late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, the Cardinals were faced with a pretty terrible situation. With a tie game, 48 seconds left, and one timeout left for the Cardinals, the Ravens lined up and actually ran a play, a handoff to Ray Rice that the Cardinals stuffed for no gain.

Now, ignore the fact that I am a Ray Rice fantasy owner for a second. The Cardinals clearly have to let the Ravens score if they run a play. Just review the two scenarios available to them and you’ll see why it’s the obvious play.

If the Cardinals let the Ravens score, they go down seven with 45 seconds and a timeout still left to them. They’d already returned a punt for a touchdown, so it’s reasonable to believe that they might have picked up a nice return or induced the Ravens to squib; they would have probably had to travel about 65 yards in 45 seconds with a timeout. Not good. At what would you peg their chances of tying the game? Against the Ravens defense, I’d put it around 5 percent.

In reality, the Cards didn’t let the Ravens score. They took their last timeout after the Rice carry. On second down, the Ravens took a knee, and promptly ran down the clock before setting up the game-winning field goal from the six-yard line. Field goals from there have been converted about 98 percent of the time. That leaves the Cardinals with a 2 percent chance of winning. The Cardinals are about twice as likely to win by letting the Ravens score as they are trying to stop them and hoping for a blocked field goal or a miss from Billy Cundiff. It would have been difficult for Whisenhunt to instruct his team to give up the touchdown, but it also would have been the right decision.

Jag War

The Jacksonville Jaguars are the student drivers of the NFL. On offense, they run a limited scheme that’s designed to protect quarterback Blaine Gabbert and avoid forcing him into situations where he’ll turn the ball over. After four turnovers in his first three starts, Gabbert’s two turnovers on Sunday marked his only two over the subsequent three games. If achieving that means being impractically cautious and handing the ball off to Maurice Jones-Drew and Deji Karim over and over again in the second halves of games when they trail by two touchdowns, that doesn’t stop the Jaguars. Safety first.

In the other seat is their defense, steering their offense out of trouble, week after week. Jacksonville entered Sunday allowing the third-fewest yards per drive and sixth-fewest points per drive in the NFL, and in Week 8, they held Houston to 24 points, with 14 of those points coming off of two short drives that started inside Jacksonville territory. They even had the gusto to run two apparently-designed laterals with their front seven after recovering a Matt Schaub fumble.

So what’s the deal with the Jaguars defense? It starts with Daryl Smith, who dominated the Ravens during Jacksonville’s victory last Monday night. Smith, the longest-tenured Jaguars player left on the active roster, has started at each of the three different spots in the Jacksonville 4-3 alignment under Jack Del Rio. He had a quietly impressive year on the weak side in 2010, but moved to the strong side this year to clear open a spot for natural weak side ‘backer Clint Session, who came over from the Colts. With former Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny holding down the middle, the Jaguars might have the best set of 4-3 linebackers in football at the moment.

The Jaguars also upgraded their secondary. While cornerback remains a soft spot, Jacksonville made upgrading at safety a priority this offseason and gave former Ravens safety Dawan Landry a five-year, $27.5 million contract. Because Ed Reed is free to do whatever he damn pleases in Baltimore at safety, Landry was forced to become a versatile, all-around safety who could get into the box and make tackles when Reed was out in center field or vice versa.

The most pleasant surprise, though, has been Landry’s new partner at safety, Dwight Lowery. After being taken by the Jets in the fourth round of the 2008 draft, Lowery was pushed into a starting role immediately and played very well before being benched by notable talent evaluator Eric Mangini for a 34-year-old Ty Law. When Rex Ryan came into town a year later, he favored placing veterans across from Darrelle Revis and never gave Lowery a shot. He was switched to safety and promptly languished on the bottom of the Jets’ bench before being traded to the Jaguars for a conditional draft pick at the end of training camp.

Since receiver-friendly starter Courtney Greene went down with an injury, Lowery has taken over and made the starting position his own. Always more agile than fast, Lowery’s football instincts and ability to diagnose plays have repeatedly come in handy for the Jags. It was his decision to rush and eventually sack Joe Flacco that pushed the Ravens out of field goal range and turned the tide for the Jags last Monday night. On Sunday, he and Landry teamed up for a nice forced fumble and recovery combination in the fourth quarter. Ironically, Lowery would be a nice fit for the Jets, who have seen mediocre play from the likes of Jim Leonhard and Eric Smith at safety this year.

On Sunday, their most impressive work came against Arian Foster and the devastating Texans rushing attack. Foster got to 112 yards … but it took him 33 carries. That’s a dreadful rushing average of 3.4 yards per carry. That kept Jacksonville in the game even while their offense drove onto the curb and forgot to signal. And considering that Gabbert has faced the defenses of the Steelers, Ravens, and Titans in consecutive weeks, it’s reasonable to expect him to improve after the Jacksonville bye. If their offense can improve to a passable level, the Jaguars could be quite the spoiler for teams heading into the second half.

Great Moments in Decision-Making

It’s hard to figure out what Pete Carroll was thinking on Sunday. First, he announced Tarvaris Jackson as his starter, then put Charlie Whitehurst in to start. After three series, Carroll took Whitehurst out and replaced him with Jackson. The real disaster, though, came when his Seahawks decided to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the three-yard line with 14 seconds left in the first half. Down 17-3 and with no timeouts, Carroll chose to try for a conversion and go into halftime as part of a one-score game. Instead, Marshawn Lynch was stopped short, leading to a chorus of boos and changing the entire course of the game.

Let’s keep those three points in mind. The Seahawks decided to punt on fourth-and-4 from the 36-yard line — virtually the same situation — later on in the game. They also kicked a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the seven-yard line. How does it make sense to go for it on fourth-and-short in the earlier situation and then kick in both the later situations?

Eventually, the Seahawks turned an Andy Dalton interception into a touchdown, leaving the score at 17-12. If the Seahawks had kicked the field goal earlier, they’s be at 17-15. A two-point conversion for them ties the game. Instead, the Seahawks were stuck going for a two-pointer to make it a three-point game, which they didn’t get. It was their last chance to tie it up.

Browns coach Pat Shurmur, though, might have been on the same wavelength as Carroll. With 37 seconds left in the third quarter, the Browns faced a fourth-and-2 at the 49ers’ 39-yard line, down 17-3. You clearly need two touchdowns to tie. A field goal doesn’t really help anything, and a 54-yard field goal in San Francisco isn’t exactly a high-upside play. The Browns used this opportunity to … punt?

It’s hard to figure out how the ensuing 28-yard punt really helped the Browns. The 49ers proceeded to go three-and-out, but 49ers punter Andy Lee is arguably the best specialist in football. He promptly booted a 65-yarder that Josh Cribbs wasn’t able to return, and when you throw in an offensive holding penalty that tacked on an additional eight yards, the Browns took over at the eight-yard line.

Contrast that to 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who made the right decision even though it produced the wrong outcome. With a 10-0 lead in the second quarter, the 49ers faced a fourth-and-goal decision from the 1-yard line. The Browns had managed to stop Frank Gore on second and third down, so Harbaugh had some negative feedback affecting his decision-making, but he rightly chose to go for it. It’s the obvious play. The Browns are not a good power run defense, even without the two stuffs. A fourth-and-1 carry will score a touchdown about 55 percent of the time. Going for it, then, produces an estimated 3.85 points. A field goal will work about 99 percent of the time, producing an estimated 2.97 points. Even though the 49ers were stuffed, Harbaugh evaluated his options with the proper process and made the best decision possible, even though the outcome didn’t work.

The other advantage to going for it here is that it pins the Browns deep in their own territory. A failure still leaves Cleveland on their 1-yard line. If you estimate that Josh Cribbs returns the ensuing kickoff to the 25-yard line, that resulting 24-yard difference in field position is worth about 0.87 points to the new offense. That’s now a total of 1.75 points the 49ers are gaining by going for it instead of kicking.

Finally, if the Browns don’t move the ball on the ensuing drive, the 49ers are likely to get excellent field position. (This is far less likely to be the case from the 37-yard line than it is from the 1.) Despite fumbling twice in eight plays, the Browns were able to move the ball 15 yards before punting. The 49ers took over on their own 36-yard line, which is above-average field position, and promptly held the ball for more than four minutes before scoring on a two-yard pass to Michael Crabtree. They weren’t rewarded on a karmic level for Harbaugh’s decision-making, but it put them in the best situations possible to succeed. It’s hard to say that Shurmur or Carroll did the same for their teams.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Previously from Bill Barnwell:

Breaking Down the Suck for Luck Campaign
Handicapping the 2011 NFL MVP Race
The Hedge, the Tease, and the Life of the NFL Bettor
Debunking the Tim Tebow Myth
Could Alex Smith Become the Worst Quarterback to Ever Win a Super Bowl?
The Cost of Carson and the Rest of the NFL Trading Deadline Deals

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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