Patriots

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

MORE

We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.

Here's why Patriots' 2019 schedule could set them up for Super Bowl repeat

usatsi_12105999_133468180_lowres.jpg
USA TODAY Sports Images

Here's why Patriots' 2019 schedule could set them up for Super Bowl repeat

The New England Patriots will be the defending Super Bowl champions entering the 2019 NFL season, and the strength (or lack thereof) of their schedule should be among the reasons for optimism surrounding the team's chances of successfully defending its title.

The Patriots are tied with four other teams for the second-easiest 2019 schedule, based on opponents' combined win percentage from the 2018 campaign. New England's 2019 opponents had a 2018 win percentage of just .473, according to John Breech of CBS Sports. Only the Washington Redskins have an easier 2019 schedule.

Here's a look at New England's 2019 schedule. Keep in mind dates and times for all games have not yet been finalized. 

HOME
Buffalo Bills
Miami Dolphins
New York Jets
Cleveland Browns
Pittsburgh Steelers
Dallas Cowboys
New York Giants
Kansas City Chiefs

AWAY
Buffalo Bills
Miami Dolphins
New York Jets
Baltimore Ravens
Cincinnati Bengals
Houston Texans
Philadelphia Eagles
Washington Redskins

The Patriots, as winners of the AFC East, will again play a first-place schedule. However, they also will play the AFC North and the NFC East. The NFC East is a competitive division but it's not home to any juggernauts. Same for the AFC North, which could have four solid teams in 2019 thanks to the Cleveland Browns' resurgence, but there's no elite team that will scare the rest of the conference.

And, of course, the Patriots will play six games against the lackluster AFC East. New England went 5-1 against its division rivals last season, and that only loss was the disaster against the Dolphins in Miami.

The Patriots went 11-5 in the 2018 regular season before a dominant playoff run that ended with a Super Bowl LIII victory over the Los Angeles Rams. It was the Pats' worst regular-season record since 2009. The odds of the Patriots failing to win 12-plus games next season should be pretty low, especially when you factor in their easy schedule and the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs matchup will again be at Gillette Stadium.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.