In the world of defensive football there are three position groups: defensive lineman, linebackers, and defensive backs. While linebacker seems like it's probably the most popular and well-known position on defense, today I'm giving the DBs their turn in the limelight by breaking down the play of the New England Patriots cornerbacks and safeties.
Let's start with pure statistics. The Patriots have given up 262 yards passing per game this season. There are seven teams with worse averages. With only 32 teams in the NFL, there really aren't a whole lot of teams that are worse at pass defense than New England.
But you have to consider too that there's been a huge statistical improvement in New England's pass defense this season as compared to last. In 2011, they allowed 294 yards passing per game, an average that was better than just one other team: the Green Bay Packers. So even though they might not be having the best statistical season ever in terms of giving up passing yards, they're doing 32 yards a game better than last year, which is definitely a step in the right direction.
Then you have scoring, which is more important than yardage allowed since it is the statistic that determines whether you win or lose. Last year the Patriots allowed a total of 26 passing touchdowns in the regular season. Nine teams gave up more than that. This season, New England has allowed only five passing touchdowns through the first three weeks.
But how good they'll really be at preventing opposing squads from scoring through the air remains to be seen. They are currently tied for 15th place in passing touchdowns allowed...with nine other teams. With some many teams bunched so close together, we're going to have to wait a few more weeks and get bigger sample sizes to see where the Patriots really rank in preventing passing touchdowns.
One brief caveat: I understand that linebackers, and even sometimes defensive lineman, will play some role in pass defense, but I think these statistics are still a valid way of measuring defensive backs since they're involved in pass defense every single play (Yes, even the run plays. As a defensive back, you always have to be watching for pass).
But statistics can only take you so far, so how have the Patriots corners and safeties actually been playing?
In my opinion, they haven't been playing very well. In watching highlights of their first three games on NFL.com, it looks like they need to go back to middle or high school football and work on their fundamentals. In the highlights I saw, there were missed tackles and NFL players who looked like they really didn't want to play with the big boys.
Against Baltimore on Sunday night, Devin McCourty took a bad angle when trying to tackle Torrey Smith in the third quarter. Sure it's not easy to make that play, but these guys are professionals. You have to adjust your angles when you're chasing after the player with the ball. That's stuff I spent a long time learning, and it's also a part of the art of tackling that the Patriots defensive backs might need to go back and review this week.
Aside from the missed tackles, there were also more obvious mistakes on Sunday night. Three missed interceptions, for instance, hurt the Pats in Baltimore. In addition to tackling, New England should be working on ball drills. Again, the Pats need to go back to their fundamentals. I truly believe that defense wins championships, so if the Pats want to contend, they have to improve their D, particularly their weakest defensive unit. They can't let opportunities like interceptions slip through their fingers, especially when they come their way three separate times.
Of course, I will admit that I couldn't replay the Pats first three games in their entirety or see plays from different angles, so there could have been plays I didn't see where the defensive backs played very well. For instance, Tavon Wilson and O. J. Mayo combined to hit and stop Tennessee's Nate Washington from coming down with a Jake Locker pass in Week 1.
But from what I could see, it sure looks like the Patriots defensive backs have some work to do. They're making lots of mistakes, many of which can be prevented by simply re-learning fundamentals. Play like that doesn't quite make it in the NFL.
**Note: Statistics at the beginning of this post on the passing defenses of NFL teams came from ESPN.go.com, with the number of passing touchdowns the Patriots have given up this year also listed on pro-football-reference.com.