Patriots

Felger: These Pats are defenseless

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Felger: These Pats are defenseless

By Michael Felger

The instinct is to say that the Patriots' defense is a "work in progress." Or that it's simply a developing unit going through some growing pains. Or some such cliche.

But let's be real.

The unit stinks right now.

The Pats weren't just inconsistent on defense in their 38-30 win over Buffalo on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. They were wretched. Do you understand how bad the Bills' offense wasis? The Bills scored seven points a week ago in Green Bay. They opened the season with 10 points at home versus Miami. They averaged just over 15 points a game in 2009 (23rd in the league).

And on Sunday they were the greatest show on turf.

The Pats the last few years have made a habit of allowing career days to mediocre quarterbacks, so this story is really nothing new.

But, somehow, this felt worse than usual.

The Pats couldn't stop the run (the Bills averaged 5.6-yards per carry), couldn't stop the pass (Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 71 percent of his throws) and couldn't stay clean on kickoffs (C.J. Spiller's 95-yard kickoff return kept the Bills in the lead in the second quarter). They missed tackles (did you see Roscoe Parrish bounce off Brandon Meriweather, Jonathan Wilhite and Gary Guyton to covert a third-and-18 in the first quarter?), they blew contain (did you see Jermaine Cunningham and Darius Butler get sucked inside on Spiller's 19-yard run in the second quarter?), and they allowed Bills' receivers huge amounts of real estate (take your pick).

Time and again, Tom Brady and the offense put the defense in position to put the game out of reach -- and they failed nearly every time.

The Pats' two fourth-quarter interceptions?

Please. They were gifts.

The first came when Fitzpatrick overshot his intended target at the goal line and the ball lofted perfectly into the hands of Pat Chung. Can of corn. The degree of difficultly was only slightly higher two series later when Fitzpatrick again threw high, this time into the waiting arms of the massively overrated Meriweather.

You can say the Pats "made plays" on those snaps, but I would beg to differ. They were more like fair catches.

Other than that, the Pats forced just one punt on the day. One. From the Bills.

Please note: I believe the Pats' defense is going to get better. I mean, how can it get any worse? The Pats currently rank in the bottom five in the league in points allowed (82 in three games), and Bill Belichick is just too good for the unit to be this bad for this long . . . Right? It's simple logic. At some point, the defense is going to evolve from being atrocious to simply mediocre. Mark it down.

The real questions are: How long is that process going to take; and can the unit ever be more than that?

We'll find out.

For now, it's scary how many players on defense have either flat-lined in their development, or gone in reverse.

Butler has gotten worse. He was removed from the startling lineup on Sunday in favor of Kyle Arrington, who was brutal in his own right.

Meriweather has gotten worse. He was benched last week, only to return to the starting lineup on Sunday and author perhaps the worse defensive play of the day, allowing Spiller to walk into the end zone in the second quarter on a simple bubble screen.

Jerod Mayo finally woke up in this game (nine tackles, one sack and one tackle for a loss), but is he the impact guy you thought he'd be as a rookie? Not yet.

We could go on. Has Jonathan Wilhite improved? No. Terrance Wheatley? Nope. Guyton? Questionable. Ron Brace? I guess, but only because he was at rock bottom to begin with. Chung? Sure. There's one. Name another. It's too early to talk about the rookies, although we have all be encouraged by Devin McCourty. Then again, McCourty gave up another touchdown on Sunday (a 37-yarder to Steve Johnson) and we all felt pretty good about Butler early on, too.

The ultimate success or failure of the Pats' rebuilding project on defense will be determined over the course of the next few years, so we have a ways to go with this story. But if you're concerned about the here and now, if you're still interested in contending for a championship this season, then these questions have more urgency.

When handicaping the division, we always look to the quarterback position and say the Pats have a huge advantage with Brady. And that makes sense. We'd all take him over Fitzpatrick, or Mark Sanchez, or Chad Henne. Hands down.

But here's the bad news.

Every starting quarterback in the division has now had a career day against the Pats. Fitzpatrick completed over 70 percent of his passes for the first time on Sunday. Mark Sanchez threw for three touchdowns for the first time last week and won. Chad Henne went over 300 yards for the first time last December and won.

In other words, what would you rather have: Brady versus the Jets defense, or Sanchez versus the Pats defense? Based on the scoreboard (the Jets have won two of the last three), it's hard to take Brady -- as crazy as that sounds.

Of course, the more pertinent question comes a week from today: Brady versus the Dolphins' defense, or Henne versus the Pats defense?

Again, we'll find out.

Read Felger's report card on Tuesday. Email him HERE and read the mailbag on Thursday. Listen to him on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m. on 98.5 the Sports Hub.

Will the real Jaguars defense please stand up?

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Will the real Jaguars defense please stand up?

FOXBORO -- Are we giving the Jaguars defense too much credit?

The numbers, on the surface, paint Jacksonville's defense as one of the best the NFL has seen in years. They finished the season as the league's top passing defense in terms of yards allowed, and they were second when it came to points allowed, total yards and sacks.

MORE - Bortles earning respect from teammates, Patriots

Then there are the postseason awards that have been bestowed upon their defensive regulars. Jalen Ramsey, AJ Bouye, Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson have all been named Pro Bowlers. Ramsey and Campbell are First-Team All-Pros, while Bouye and Telvin Smith are Second-Teamers. Campbell is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. 

So why, then, is there this lingering feeling that the Jaguars defense isn't all it's cracked up to be? They allowed Ben Roethlisberger to heave his way to 42 points in the Divisional Round. In Week 16, they gave up 44 to Jimmy Garoppolo and the Niners. Hell, Blaine Gabbert and the Cardinals put up 27 and beat them in Week 12. 

Those results don't exactly scream "all-time defense." So what is Jacksonville? Overrated? Properly rated? 

One thing is for certain: The Jags played an easy schedule. The combined winning percentage of their opponents in 2017 was a league-low 44 percent. And when it comes to the defense in particular, they had the second-easiest schedule in the league, according to Football Outsiders. It didn't hurt that they were able to play the Colts with Jacoby Brissett, the Texans before Deshaun Watson became a star and after he got hurt, and the NFL's No. 23-ranked Titans offense. Twice. Each. They also got the Ravens (No. 27 offense), Jets (No. 28), Bengals (No. 32), Browns (No. 24) and Cardinals (No. 22). Add it all up and that's nine games -- more than half their schedule -- against bottom-third NFL offenses. Two more games came against a Houston offense that featured starting quarterbacks Tom Savage and TJ Yates. 

When you dig into the analytics it's harder to find ways to poke holes in Jacksonville's credibility as a top-tier defensive unit. Pro Football Focus grades the Jags as their No. 1 defense, and it's really not close. Football Outsiders calls them their No. 1 defense in terms of DVOA. Even when you factor in some of its recent performances -- like letdowns versus the Steelers and Niners -- Jacksonville is still the league's No. 4 defense in weighted DVOA, which is adjusted so that games that were played earlier in the season are gradually less important. 

At the same time, the analytics can be occasionally unkind to the Jaguars. Football Outsiders has them ranked as one of the most inconsistent defenses in the league. According to their variance statistic, Jacksonville is the fourth most inconsistent defense in football. A deeper dive into the numbers has also located an apparent soft underbelly of the Jaguars defense. Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, the Jaguars are dominant against three-receiver sets -- No. 1 in the league, in fact -- but they're the No. 23 defense in the NFL when it comes to defending personnel groupings that feature one or two wide receivers. That would explain, in part, why the Titans (who Sharp rated as the least-likely team to employ three-receiver sets this season) and Niners (who went with more "21" and "12" personnel looks late in the season) were able to beat the Jaguars. 

The most difficult argument against the legitimacy of the Jaguars' defensive rankings is the talent they put on the field on a weekly basis. Their roster, defensively at least, stacks up with some of the most imposing defensive units in recent memory. The Seahawks had four First and Second-Team All-Pros on their defense in 2014. The Broncos defense had five Pro Bowlers in 2015. The Jaguars have five players who were named either All-Pros or Pro Bowlers or both this year, and they probably should've had a sixth in pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who recorded 12 sacks (eighth in the NFL) and a league-best six forced fumbles. 

The verdict? The Jaguars defense is loaded with blue-chip players. It will be the best unit the Patriots offense has seen this year. But they have been inconsistent, they have holes -- which we touched upon in this week's Quick Slants the Podcast with Jerod Mayo -- and there remains the very real possibility that Tom Brady and his teammates will light up the Gillette Stadium scoreboard on Sunday. 

Now, is Brady healthy? Good question. Will he have enough time to throw? We'll see. But if the answer to both of those questions is "yes" (or "enough"), then the Patriots should be headed to Minnesota. This Jaguars defense is very good, but it's far from inpenetrable.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

BEST OF BST PODCAST: Tom Brady injures right hand during practice

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BEST OF BST PODCAST: Tom Brady injures right hand during practice

0:41 - Tom Brady injured his right hand during practice on Wednesday. Tom Curran, Albert Breer, Michael Holley, and Tom Giles discuss how this injury could impact Brady’s ability to throw against the Jaguars on Sunday.

6:06 - Isaiah Thomas has asked the Celtics to cancel his video tribute on Paul Pierce Night, and Pierce said that Thomas was trying to ‘punk’ Danny Ainge into a tribute video. Michael Holley, Kyle Draper, and Tom Giles debate if Isaiah Thomas or Paul Pierce is in the wrong.

11:19 - Albert Breer discusses how much credit Tom Coughlin deserves for the Jaguars great season and if Coughlin’s success against the Patriots and Bill Belichick will come into play on Sunday.

15:37 - Joe Haggerty joins BST from the TD Garden to break down the Bruins win over the Canadiens and Claude Julien’s return to Boston.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE EPISODE