Will defense betray Patriots in the end?

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Will defense betray Patriots in the end?

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com

The Patriots' defense allows an average of 374.6 yards per game. They are on pace to alow 5,994 yards. A big play or two in the final two games against the Dolphins and Bills and they'll give up more than 6,000. How do teams that allow 6,000 total yards in a season normally do? Not awesome. Here's the results since 2001. 2009: Chiefs (4-12), Browns (5-11), Lions (2-14)2008: Seahawks (4-12), Chiefs (2-14), Lions (0-16)2007: Lions (7-9)2006: Nobody2005: 49ers (4-12)2004: Chiefs (7-9), Saints (8-8)2003: Texans (5-11), Falcons (5-11)2002: Cardinals (5-11), Chargers (8-8), Lions (3-13), Chiefs (8-8)2001: NobodyThat's a combined record of 80-179. Nary a team among that group with a winning record. And believe me, I get it. It's "points, not yards" and "bend, don't break," and a lot of the numbers have beenrolled up in blowouts. The point of this exercise, the reason for pointing out that the Patriots are 12-2 despite having been moved upon with startling ease, is to illustrate what an anomaly their defense is. Because the New England defense is not bad and it is not good. It is timely. But after watching the Packers roll up 369 yards behind just-out-of-the-womb Matt Flynn, it is worth wondering if the time may run out on them. So let's call this"Alarmist Tuesday" and look atfour major concerns with the Patriots defense. 1. Defensive Line DepthThe Packers ran 84 offensive plays Sunday night. Vince Wilfork played 75 of them, as tabulated by the estimable Mike Reiss at ESPNBoston.com. Gerard Warren, meanwhile, played 59 and Eric Moore played 53. New England is short on the defensive line and having to use their two wide-body veterans for so many plays is not conducive to their long-term viability. The Patriots really could use injured guys like Mike Wright (concussion), Myron Pryor (back), Ron Brace (concussion) and Brandon Deaderick (shoulder injury vs. the Packers) to take the heat off the older guys. Sunday night was an aberration - the Patriots aren't going to often get doubled up in time of possession - but Wilfork is the key to their front-seven and he is a vital playoff cog. 2. Secondary DisciplineI'm in the minority, but I think Brandon Meriweather's been pretty good this season. He's a much better hitter than in 2009, when he seemed to pass on contact against bigger players. Unfortunately, his hitting on Sunday extended to teammate Devin McCourty, who Meriweather wiped out on a 66-yard touchdown pass to James Jones. Not only was Meriweather taking too shallow an angle, it appeared he needed to be further back in support on the play. Same thing in the second half when he nearly collided with Kyle Arrington at the goal line on a pass that Arrington should have picked. Patrick Chung, outstanding at the start of the season, has not been as solid in coverage as he was earlier in the year. Aside from a timely late-game tackle on Sunday, he's been pretty quiet since the early part of the year. The back part of the Patriots' defense is - depending on the playoff opponent - going to be key. If the Patriots match up with the Colts or San Diego (as opposed to Kansas City of the Jets, for instance, the play of the safeties will be a key factor. 3. Stopping the Run In Sub DefenseThe Patriots were horrendous at stopping backs when they had their nickel-and-dime defenses on the field earlier this season. They fixed it for a long stretch, but Sunday night it re-emerged.Discipline and being able toread and communicateare thekeys to success in those situations.4. Linebacker TacklingThe Patriots missed Brandon Spikes on Sunday night. Gary Guyton - despite all his athleticism - does not arrive at the ball under control very frequently. That's on checkdowns and regular handoffs. Rob Ninkovich, who's usually pretty reliable at wrappingup, slipped Sunday and allowed a simple checkdown pass to turn into a touchdown. And Tully Banta-Cain has had issues all season wrapping people up on initial contact. The poor tackling was the first thing linebacker Jerod Mayo lamented after Sunday's game. With what happened Sunday night, there may be talk of the Patriots defense being "exposed." The truth is, when you're on pace to allow 6,000 yards, the mediocrity of the defense has been hanging out there for everyone to see. But just as the convincing blowouts of the Jets and Bears served to make the Patriots defense seem more daunting than it is, the same holds true for the Packers game and the perception they're vulnerable. They are what they are. If they don't get flagged and do get turnovers, they will - despite their statistical atrociousness - be able to take a bow when it's all said andor done.

Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The general consensus has been that when it comes to defending Antonio Brown, or any No. 1 receiver for that matter, the Patriots have two options: Use their top corner Malcolm Butler in man-to-man coverage or double-team him.

There are benefits to each. Butler has the speed an quickness to effectively mirror Brown's routes. Meanwhile, Logan Ryan has found recent success in teaming up with teammates to slow down top options like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, who was the target when Devin McCourty broke up a fourth-quarter pass that resulted in a Ryan interception last week. 

Both the Steelers and the Patriots seemed to indicate that they knew which way Bill Belichick will lean this weekend. 

"[I] assume maybe that [Butler] will follow AB around," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He’s a guy that really has just come into the role of being pretty much a shutdown corner."

"[Butler] takes this as a big challenge," Patriots defensive captain Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He’s arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he’s ready to rise up to that challenge." 

But Brown -- named a First-Team All-Pro this season after reeling in 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns -- has the ability to make one singular plan of attack obsolete, eventually. The Patriots will have to throw different looks at him to keep him guessing, keep Roethlisberger thinking, and keep their connection somewhat under control.

Here are a few of the options . . . 

COVER-1

In Week 7 against the Steelers, this seemed to be the coverage of choice for the Patriots. They used Butler to shadow Brown all over the field for much of the game while one safety patrolled the deep middle portion of the field.

The third-year corner saw nine targets sent his way while in coverage of Brown. Five were caught for 94 yards.

Though the numbers looked pretty good for Brown fantasy owners, Butler had one of his stronger games of the season, making an interception in the end zone while draped all over his man. That was followed up by a celebrattion that mocked Brown's staple touchdown dance.

Brown and Butler have a relationship after seeing each other over the last two seasons and shooting a Visa commerical together earlier this year, and he sounded fired up to go against Brown again this weekend.

"Most definitely I respect that guy," Butler said of Brown this week. "Great player obviously, and (I) just love to compete and he loves to compete also."

Though Butler found himself on what looked like an island in plenty of situations back in Week 7, the Patriots also had their deep safeties (McCourty and Duron Harmon) keep a close eye on Brown as well.

But on Brown's longest catch of the game, a 51-yarder over the middle of the field, having a safety there didn't mean much due to a smart play-design by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. 

Brown was followed by Butler all the way across the field, and though Harmon may have been in position to help over the top, he had to respect the deep over route run by Steelers burner Darrius Heyward-Bey. By the time Harmon got to Brown -- Heyward-Bey actually helped slow down Harmon by screening him deep down the field -- it was too late. 

IMMEDIATE DOUBLE-TEAM

There were other instances -- like the very first third-and-long of the game for the Steelers -- when the Patriots doubled Brown off the snap with Butler and McCourty. With a player of Brown's caliber, it's not question of either single him with Butler or double him. Doubles will simply be part of the deal, in all likelihood, whether Butler's on him or not.

Back in Week 7, the Patriots were burned by Steelers secondary options on a couple of occasions when they quickly removed Brown from the equation.

The first time Brown was doubled off the snap (above), Eric Rowe was left with Heyward-Bey in a one-on-one situation and was beaten for a 14-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. The second time (below), Heyward-Bey ran across the field with Rowe trailing him, scoring once again from 14 yards out.

A holding penalty negated the second score, but it seemed clear what the Patriots were trying to tell the Steelers in those situations: "Go ahead and beat us with someone else, but we won't let you do it with Brown."

Even when Brown inevitably makes plays despite the extra attention -- the Steelers will run rub routes, screens and reverses simply to get the football in his hands -- it will be incumbent upon everyone to help limit his yards after the catch, McCourty explained this week.

"Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job but it’s going to be all of us," McCourty said. "All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that’s getting everyone to the ball, whether it’s a short pass [or] intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he’s trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he’s able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we’re going to work on that all week."

COVER-2, 2-MAN, COVER-4, ETC., ETC., ETC...

There are plenty of other defenses that the Patriots may choose to run in order to try to take away one of the game's best play-makers. If they feel as though Heyward-Bey or Eli Rogers or another teammate of Brown's is worthy of garnering special attention from one of their safeties, they could opt for more split-safety looks -- with both McCourty and Harmon deep -- than they did in Week 7.

The fact that it's Ben Roethlisberger behind center now -- and not Landry Jones, as it was in Week 7 -- may also help dictate coverages and encourage the Patriots to be more vigilent against the explosive play. 

Bottom line: Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will employ more than one look when they take on the best passing game they've faced all season. Oftentimes that'll mean two sets of eyes on Brown, and even then that's not guaranteed to stop him.

"It's tough because the thing about Antonio Brown and players of that caliber is that they're used to the multiple attention," Ryan said. "He gets doubled, he gets attention. Every team tries to do it, and he still has the numbers he has because he's a great player. That's what great players do.

"We just need to execute a little better than what other teams do. It's possible. It's not impossible. But he's not a guy you're going to completely eliminate from the game, and we've just got to corral him as a team."