In 2011, the hopes and dreams of the New England Patriots and their fans were once again dashed by the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. For the second time in the last four years the Giants would score with less than a minute remaining in the game to deny the Patriots their 4th championship, leaving New England as a dynasty on hold. Despite the losses in their last two championship games, the New England Patriots remain the benchmark by which NFL teams judge success in the NFL. In the Belichick era (2000-present) the Patriots have won 9 AFC East division titles, played in 5 Super Bowls and have 3 championships. The 'Patriot Way' has amassed 139 regular season victories against only 53 losses and a 14-5 post season record while being led by Belichick. However, as impressive as New England has been over the last two regular seasons, a glaring weakness has arisen in their two season ending losses. The New England defense has been unable to make a play in the fourth quarter to keep either the Jets (2010) or the Giants (2011) from scoring the points that would be the game winning margins. Mark Sanchez and Eli Manning are a combined 46 of 65 for 490 yards with 4 touchdowns and more importantly 0 interceptions in those games. In fact, the Patriots have finished the last two seasons ranked 30th and 31st against the pass and 25th and 31st in total yards allowed. There is, of course, the argument to be made that Tom Brady and the Patriot offense has amassed such large leads in many of the games that most of the yardage the New England defense is allowing is coming late in games while in a prevent mode. Average margin of victory for New England in regular season games the last two years of 14.6(2011) and 16.7(2010) lends some validity to this theory. Bill Belichick is one of the most innovative coaches of the past decade; his pedigree is that of a longtime defensive coordinator which makes it difficult to believe that the Patriots have simply been allowing teams to move the ball at will through the air against their defense. There is a crack in the fortress of the boys from Foxboro and it needs to be addressed for New England to once again hoist the Lombardi trophy.
Allowing over 6500 total yards while facing such anemic offenses as Miami (twice), Kansas City, Washington, Indianapolis and Denver is unconscionable for a Belichick coached team, or at least it should be. Palko, Orlovsky, Moore and Grossman managed to throw for more than 1100 yards and 7 touchdowns down the stretch against the Patriots. Had Palko not thrown interceptions with 0 touchdowns in week #11 these numbers would be even worse. The Patriots must get the problems with their defense straightened out and that starts with the secondary. Starting with the 2009 NFL draft the Patriots have selected 14 defensive players and 5 of those selections were either cornerbacks or safeties. Of the 5 defensive backs drafted from 2009 to present 4 remain on the roster with varying degrees of productivity. Patrick Chung has played to his potential when he has been on the field, and that is the problem. Chung only played 8 games for New England in 2011 and must stay healthy if he is to be the anchor of the secondary he was drafted to be. Devin McCourty saw a drop off from his rookie season in 2010 and there were times late in the season where he was actually moved over to play at safety. Some of that was due to injuries to the secondary, but McCourty was also very shaky in coverage last season and needs to regain his rookie form to hold on to his starting position. Ras I Dowling will get a chance to compete for a starting corner position in 2012 after missing nearly all of last season recovering from a hip injury. Darius Butler was drafted in the 2nd round in 2009, was released last year and is now a Carolina Panther. Cornerback Malcolm Williams will get a chance to compete for a starting safety position in 2012, by the way, Williams was a 7th round selection in 2011. Why is a 7th round pick competing for a starting position? The Patriots were reduced using Julian Edelman in the secondary last season in the fine tradition of Troy Brown. How can a team as well prepared and coached as the Patriots let themselves become so depleted in the defensive secondary? Free agents signees such as Kyle Arrington , who tied for league lead with 7 interceptions last season, Houston castoff Antwaun Molden and playoff hero Sterling Moore helped to save the Patriot season in 2011 but are not long term solutions.
New England has always been lauded as a team that plays the NFL draft like their personal fiddle, moving up and back and acquiring multiple picks in later rounds or high picks in future seasons. The future is now for the Patriots and they need to get their secondary in order. New England needs to package the two first round selections (27, 31) in this year's draft, get up into the top 5 and select cornerback Morris Claiborne from LSU. Stop trying to be the smartest guy in the room and start getting your defensive ducks in a row. LaRon Landry is an option to be signed in free agency and with his recent injury history; the continuing doubts about his health heading forward could be signed to a cap friendly incentive laden deal. Having Pat Chung and LaRon Landry patrolling the safety positions would make for a more favorable option than having 7th round picks try to win starting jobs. Mark Anderson and Andre Carter accounted for 20 of the 40 New England sacks in 2011 and are both free agents heading into next season. Bringing back one of the two is essential and getting both back on the roster would be ideal. Let them test the market if need be and then get down to the business of resigning them. Jumping into the Mario Williams sweepstakes would be possible if both Carter and Anderson should price themselves too high for the Pats liking. The line backing corps is in good shape even should Gary Guyton be allowed to walk with Mayo, Spikes, Ninkovich and Dane Fletcher ready for more snaps entering his third season.
New England does have some in house business to clear up with resigning, or placing the franchise tag on Wes Welker . Bringing free agent offensive lineman Dan Connolly back for 2012 should also be a priority as well as all purpose special team ace Mathew Slater. Once those issues are addressed it is time for the Patriots to get to work on their defense through the draft and free agency. As long as Tom Brady is under center for the Patriots the offense will continue to thrive. It is time for New England to focus their attention fully on repairing the defensive side of the ball and bring the Lombardi trophy back to Foxboro.