This week, I have done a lot of film study in place of my usual blogging routine. I am currently breaking down all 8 QB hits (7 sacks) from the Miami game. I really wanted to develop some ideas about who/what was responsible for such a great defensive showing, and the things that really stick out to me are the scenarios where the sacks occurred. 4 of the 7 sacks came on 3rd down, and 2 of the 7 came on 2nd and 10s. To me, it's obvious that The Patriots defense really tries to pick their spots when blitzing or scheming for pressure.
Belichick's verbiage after a loss usually includes, "Well, we just didn't make enough plays when it counted, and they did." He's obviously of the opinion that football games are decided by a handful of key plays. And so follows his defensive strategy: the infamous bend-but-don't-break-defense is far more than stiff red zone play and forcing turnovers. I think the biggest aspect of the BBDB Defense is knowing when to call something "creative" or "risky."
Early in the year, The Patriots struggled to keep the top on the defense. Let's be honest, they couldn't stop the pass at all, and seemingly nothing had changed from a year ago. Ask me now how I feel about the defensive backfield, and I will answer pretty confidently "They're way better than last year, and not just because of the turnovers." McCourty at Safety has really stabilized the group, and given me more confidence moving forward.
Any way you look at it, this defense is better than the 2011 installment of the team. Although Safety is still an area of concern, the upgrade from James Ihedigbo and whoever is pretty apparent. Likewise, I think you could make a compelling case that there has been improvement (or no change) at every position on defense. And I will make that argument:
DT 2011 Wilfork = 2012 Wilfork
DT 2011 Love, Haynesworth, Deaderick < 2012 Love, Deaderick, Cunningham, Francis
DE 2011 Mark Anderson = 2012 Ninkovich/Cunningham
DE 2011 Andre Carter = 2012 Jones
LB 2011 Mayo < 2012 Mayo
LB 2011 Spikes < 2012 Spikes
LB 2011 Ninkovich = 2012 Hightower
CB 2011 Arrington < 2012 Dennard
CB 2011 McCourty < 2012 Talib
S 2011 James Ihedigbo < 2012 McCourty
S 2011 Chung/Slater/Moore/Ventrone < 2012 Gregory
Nickel 2011 Moore < 2012 Arrington
Dime 2011 Edelman < 2012 Wilson
Honestly, the big improvements have come at Safety and along the interior D line. Anderson and Carter had really good years in 2011 (double digit sacks). I could understand an argument for Carter and Anderson over Jones and Ninkovich, but I think that overall the pass rush has been better (and more schematically diverse). Mayo and Spikes have both had break-out years, Wilfork is as good as he was in 2011 (even though he had some nice stats in 2011), and Ninkovich is making big plays. Jones is an upgrade because of his youth, and Cunningham/Deaderick have been surprising contributors.
All in all, the defense has improved, but what is the key to the success? I say it is "selective aggression." Last year, Bill was not able to take chances in coverage because of the instability at Safety. Likewise, the lack of interior DL talent made it hard to disguise the fronts. So, The 2011 Patriots needed to stay conservative more often than not. This defense is conservative by choice, and that helps them keep QBs guessing.This year, the front-7 has shown that they can blitz from every angle, and be effective. They get pressure by forcing 1-on-1 blocking (and they tend to win those match-ups). The biggest problems have been missed tackles, and and missed assignments. However, they have improved throughout the course of the season (pretty good for a young team).
The 2012 Patriots are poised for a Super Bowl run because they have only improved on their AFC Championship team last year. The offense is as good or better, the defense is obviously better, and for the most part the team is healthy. We have a few games to win, but the biggest obstacle seems to be the guy who sat out 2011, Peyton Manning. I say bring it on, Manning. Bring it on. The key for us will be picking our spots to be aggressive, and playing complimentary football in those crucial moments. That's what champions do.
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