By Tom E. Curran
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.