Hannable: Thrilling win over Texans overshadows concerning play from Patriots defense

Ryan Hannable
September 25, 2017 - 11:06 pm

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

The Patriots defense should be buying Tom Brady dinner every night this week — or at least a few extra servings of avocado ice cream.

Without Brady’s magical 75-yard, game-winning touchdown drive with 2:24 left on the clock to steal the win against the Texans on Sunday, the theme of the week would be how could the Patriots defense allow 30-plus points to a Houston offense which only totaled 20 points in the two games of the season, and what is in store with the unit for the rest of the year?

Now, the narrative is focused on Brady’s comeback, but make no mistake about it, there are some real legitimate questions about the Patriots defense.

Your eyes are not deceiving you, the Patriots defense has been very poor through the first three games of the year.

Going into Monday Night Football, the Patriots defense ranked No. 32 in total defense (461 yards per game), No. 32 in pass defense (331 yards per game) and No. 26 in run defense (130 yards per game). The more concerning thing about Sunday is it came against a Texans offense who started a rookie quarterback in Deshaun Watson, but after totaling just 20 points in its first two games, Houston had 20 points with 6:15 left in the first half.

It should be noted even though the Patriots won 36-33, seven points were the result of a fumble returned for a touchdown. Still, allowing 26 points to an offense as poor as the Texans’ is cause for concern.

“Bill [Belichick] said it best after the game. We’ve got a lot of work to do defensively,” Devin McCourty said. “It doesn’t get any easier next week with Cam Newton. The good thing is we’ll be highly critical of how we played against Watson because we’re going to see something similar Sunday.”

So what has been the biggest issue? The number of big plays the defense has allowed.

Against the Texans, the Patriots allowed five passing plays of over 20 yards, and overall the defense is on pace to allow 96 plays (run and pass) going for 20 or more yards this season. This comes after last year when it allowed 56 such plays.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason for these big plays, but one of the reasons is a lot of miscommunication. It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise considering the new players on the unit, but also their unfamiliarity with one another.

Not only has the unit’s leader in Dont’a Hightower missed the last two games with a knee injury, an undrafted rookie, a fourth-round pick and a player acquired via trade the week before the season are all playing big roles. Then, there are others like Stephon Gilmore, who is in his first year with the team and still working on getting up to speed with the vocabulary with how to play certain plays.

Last year was an example of the unit getting better as the year went along and not reaching its peak until November and still finishing with the No. 1 ranked scoring defense in the league. A major difference this year is the schedule isn’t close to as easy as it was last year.

The Patriots have Cam Newton and the Panthers at home this week, followed by a road game at Tampa Bay on a Thursday night, then in New York against the Jets followed by home games against the Falcons and Chargers before the bye week. Aside from the Jets game, all are difficult tests against some strong offenses.

New England has been able to advance deep into the playoffs with a suspect defense a few times, but that was when Brady was in his mid-30s. It’s hard to rely on a 40-year-old quarterback to put the team on his back every week like he did on Sunday, especially in January. It’s no coincidence the past two Patriots Super Bowl teams had excellent defenses.

While it doesn’t seem like the 2017 Patriots defense will be ranked No. 1 like last year, it has the potential to be better than average and not be a liability like it’s been over the first three weeks. 

The biggest thing will be getting Hightower back from the knee injury. This will likely be in the next week or two, and then it’s worth at least thinking about moving him back to his traditional middle linebacker role. It appears Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts have had their fair share of struggles in the middle of the defense, and that doesn’t even factor in the signal-caller responsibilities. Hightower may stay as an edge rusher, but from this viewpoint the question of moving him back to his old position should at least be asked.

Then it comes down to just getting more experience playing together, which will come in time. Gilmore should get more comfortable and confident at corner, and Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise and Cassius Marsh will continue to develop in the front-seven after being added this year, and in Marsh’s case the last month. 

So, yes, it’s only Week 3 and there’s plenty of time for improvement, but the first three weeks have been less than stellar for the Patriots defense, and that needs to begin to change.