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.
And 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 their secondary.
That's not a recipe for success, no matter how unimposing the Carolina Panthers' receiving corps are perceived to be.
It's 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.
McCourty, 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.
2011 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.
Of 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.
The 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.
Olsen 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 receiving threat.
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 ground.
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.
The 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.
Ryan Kalil 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.
The 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.
All 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 together.
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