New England Patriots on Paper: Dennard injury leaves secondary bare bones
Bill Belichick probably feels like locking up his defensive backs in a
Psych ward somewhere, in a padded room with nothing but hospital scrubs
on their backs, with strict orders to sit in the corner and watch game
film of the Carolina Panthers...
...kind of a Clockwork Orange
trip for their own protection and, of course, so that the New England
Patriots' coach will have enough healthy bodies to fill at least a
nickle subpackage - because with the news that starting cornerback
Alfonzo Dennard will join safety Steve Gregory on the skids for this
coming Monday night game, the depth chart is getting a little thin.
if star corner Aqib Talib hasn't recovered sufficiently from his hip
injury suffered a month ago, the Patriots will be starting two rookies and
two journeymen along with rising star free safety Devin McCourty in
That's not a recipe for success, no matter how unimposing the Carolina Panthers' receiving corps are perceived to be.
already a given that rookie Duron Harmon will be starting at strong
safety in place of Gregory, but with the announcement of Dennard being
shelved, nothing else is a certainty - because if Talib can't go, and he
is listed as questionable to play, there could be some radical
adjustments on the way from the New England coaching staff, ala 2011.
of course, is a former cornerback that made the transition to his
natural position of free safety in that 2011 season to fill in for a
unit that had been decimated by injury, and he along with the likes of
Sterling Moore, James Ihedigbo and Sergio Brown managed to do some fine
patchwork - Moore even becoming something of a folk hero in New England
by way of the AFC Championship game - as the team came thisclose to winning a world title.
was also the season that Kyle Arrington arrived on the scene and held
down a starting corner job and led the league in interceptions - but now
Arrington is best relegated to the slot where he has shined in both
pass defense and in run support, though he may find himself on the
outside charged with the duties of helping to lock down the Panthers'
top receiving threat...
...though another option is the
team opting for a nickle subpackage with McCourty coming up into
coverage and leaving the rookie Harmon as a single high safety - which
would certainly take some mighty big huevos for the coaching staff to
try that, but Belichick has a history of fearlessly throwing caution to
the wind, and most of the time coming out ok.
course, if Talib were to play, the secondary would be fine as it is.
McCourty would remain at safety and either Arrington or rookie Logan
Ryan would get the start opposite with the other in the slot, with
journeyman Marquice Cole providing adequate dime coverage and backup
safety coverage as needed.
Regardless of who lines up
where, Carolina offers a group of receivers that lends itself to the
idea that the Patriots could get by without Dennard, but maybe not if
Talib can't go.
Steve Smith is the exception in an odd
mix of receivers who never quite lived up to their potential. Smith is
an aging deep threat whose sub 4.4 speed helped make him one of the
premier pass catchers in the NFL, but even though his best days are
behind him, he still commands the opposition's best cover corner.
Panthers signed Ted Ginn, Jr, as a free agent this past offseason,
hoping to tap his potential as both a deep threat in the passing game
and as a kick and punt returner - and despite his tremendous speed has
not excelled at any of these tasks for the Panthers, while big
possession receiver Brandon LaFell has actually been more productive...
...but as far as reliable targets for quarterback Cam Newton is concerned, Smith and tight end Greg Olsen are the guys.
is a former 1st round selection for the Chicago Bears who was so
productive for them that when Carolina came a courting , they were
willing to part with their 2012 3rd round draft pick to employ his
services, and he hasn't disappointed - and where his speed is nowhere
near what Smith and the other pass catchers bring, he is actually more
productive than any of them and should be considered Newton's top
Newton, of course, is a
multi-dimensional talent with a big arm and ankle-breaking moves in the
open field and is perhaps the most dangerous running threat on the team,
though it appears that he's mellowing on that just a tad in his third
year out of Auburn, but is still on pace to record 500 yards on the
And he's improved his completion average when
he does throw, but his consistency remains a bit of an issue as one
could reasonably rely on both two touchdown passes and one interception
per contest from him, and perhaps that's because his offensive line may
be one of the shakier units in the league and he's been on the run - not
of his own free will, mind you - more than coach Ron Rivera would like.
line is anchored by 11 year veteran Jordan Gross at left tackle and 6'
5", 340 pound mauler Byron Bell at right tackle, but the talent level
drops off after that, especially considering that right guard Chris
Scott has been ruled out due to a bum knee and will most likely be
replaced by second year man Nate Chandler.
is a pro's pro at center and Travelle Wharton joins Gross on the left
side to make up the oldest starting tackle/guard combinations in the
NFL, and with Wharton coming off knee surgery that ended his 2012
campaign, Patriots' defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are
probably licking their chops at the prospect of adding a few more sacks
to the 25 times Newton has kissed the turf already this season.
loss of Scott further decimates an already incredibly average interior
line that's good for just 3.8 yards per carry in the running game
despite the presence of DeAngelo Williams, who may have a tough time
getting it going against the combination of Isaac Sopoaga and Chris
Jones at defensive tackle.
The Patriots currently hold
the 30th ranking in rush defense in the NFL, but that number was
primarily reached without Sopoaga, who joined the team just in time to
get some snaps in the Pittsburgh game before the bye. Undoubtedly
"Soap" has been getting acclimated with the playbook these past few
weeks and will be the run plugger to improve upon that ranking.
of this said, the Patriots generally want to stop the run, take Smith
out of the picture and contain Newton by setting the edge and staying in
the rush lanes, but their biggest problem may be with trying to handle
Olsen in the pattern.
Olsen is a big target and perhaps
the fastest tight end they've faced this season - which bodes ill for
New England in that they really haven't been able to limit a true tight
end - the Saints' Jimmy Graham being the exception, though he is more of
a wide receiver - since weak side linebacker Jerod Mayo went down
against New Orleans...
...so the Patriots success on
defense could be directly tied to whether or not Aqib Talib plays in
this game. If he does, the Patriots have enough defensive backs to
assign a nickle safety to Olsen, if not, it's a matter of trying a
combination of coverages with a group of linebackers that haven't proven
capable of hanging with tight ends thus far.
No one is
going to feel sorry for the Patriots, nor should they feel sorry for
themselves, but with three starters done for the season, two others
definitely out for Monday night and perhaps down a fifth one if Talib
can't go, New England's defense has taken more than their share of
debilitating injuries - but somehow they always manage to hold it
They did it in 2011, and they can certainly
do it with better players in 2013 - and Monday night will tell us
everything we need to know about how resilient a group both the defense
and the coaching staff is going forward.
Photo credit: New England Patriots via David Silverman