There is plenty of blame to go around following the Patriots devastating season-ending loss Sunday Night. Poor red-zone execution, inconsistency on third down, turnovers and uncharacteristically horrific clock management all made healthy contributions to the loss.
However, the fatal flaw for the Patriots was crystal clear. We all knew going into the season that depth (or lack thereof) in the secondary was an issue. It wound up biting them in this, the biggest game of the season.
Much had been made about the impact midseason pickup Aqib Talib had made on the defense. The Patriots defense improved noticeably since acquiring the troubled but clearly talented Talib. They stopped hemorrhaging big plays in the passing game. They blitzed more often and more effectively, largely due to newfound confidence in the secondary’s ability to hold up in coverage. They attacked offenses.
Talib’s impact on the defense’s performance was undeniable, but his usefulness went far beyond his skill set. Talib’s importance was absolutely magnified by the Patriots lack of depth behind him. For starters, Talib’s stabilizing presence (using the words “Talib” and “stable” in the same sentence admittedly feels strange considering his dubious history) allowed Devin McCourty to move to free safety. McCourty’s combination of range, tackling ability and football smarts made him a natural at safety. His cerebral “quarterback of the secondary” presence appeared to play a large role in the defense instantly and dramatically cutting down on the miscommunications and blown assignments that consistently hurt the team during the early part of the season.
The other key impact Talib made simply by being on the field was taking snaps away from other, ahem, less qualified defensive backs. Acquiring Talib pushed Kyle Arrington down to nickel corner. It made Marquice Cole almost exclusively a special teamer. It was also what allowed McCourty’s move to safety, where it created a similar effect by keeping the erratic play of Patrick Chung and Tavon Wilson largely on the bench.
However, trading for Talib was ultimately putting a band-aid on a wound. It works for a while, but once the band-aid peels off (or injures a hamstring) the problem is still there.
This was evident when Talib sat out most of the Patriots late season matchup with Jacksonville to rest his injured hip. With fellow starter Alfonzo Dennard also sitting with an injury, the Patriots were forced to go back to the season opening starters: Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington at corner, Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory at safety. This combination promptly went out and made Chad Henne look like the second coming of Johnny Unitas.
The Pats are still good enough on their worst day to beat the lowly Jags on their best day. That obviously wasn’t the case with the Ravens. Baltimore curiously used a very conservative, run-first offensive approach in the first half and experienced little success. However, even Jim Caldwell wasn’t dumb enough to realize that Kyle Arrington couldn’t cover Adam Smith, let alone Torrey Smith. Baltimore came out in the second half and threw the ball 24 times (while only running 8 times, including a scramble) on their first five possessions. The result? Flacco was 15-24 for 169 yards and three unanswered touchdowns.
Simply put, Baltimore knew its receivers would be able to make plays against the personnel New England had on the field. They mercilessly attacked the mismatches (Flacco was 5-5 for 62 yards and a beastly Anquan Boldin touchdown when targeting poor Marquice Cole) and made New England’s defense look helpless.
New England’s success has come despite serious secondary concerns for several years; Tom Brady and their passing game are good enough to mask those problems against most NFL teams. However, the team’s lack of quality depth in the secondary has clearly been their Achilles heel the past two seasons. They can not afford to inadequately address this in the offseason, particularly with the Brady/Belichick window of opportunity growing smaller by the minute.
In fact, free agency seems likely to create serious change in the Patriots defensive backfield. Talib, Arrington, Cole and Patrick Chung are all impending free agents and it’s quite possible that none of them will be back. Talib’s ambivalent comments after the game indicated that he will be looking for a decent payday. Belichick has said plenty of positive things about Talib in the past two months but it’s hard to imagine the team ponying up too much money to keep him, especially with Wes Welker and Sebastian Vollmer ahead of him on the team’s list of offseason priorities. Chung’s inconsistent play and consistent injuries have caused him to fall out of favor with team. Arrington’s play as a starter this season was a painful reminder of the Peter Principle; he was clearly promoted to the level of his incompetence. Cole actually might have the best chance of returning, but more for his ability on special teams (good) than on defense (bad).
Either way, ch-ch-ch-changes are clearly coming to the Patriots defensive backfield. That can only be a good thing.