The New England Patriots’ offseason has been dominated by Deflategate, and most of the discussion about their on-field fortunes is tied to how many games Tom Brady will miss. That’s understandable, since they aren’t starting any better than 1-3 if Brady really misses four games. What’s even more pertinent over the long haul though, is how the Patriots are going to absorb key personnel losses on defense.
Darrelle Revis took his Super Bowl ring and went back to the Jets. How important was Revis for the Patriots? He gave the team a true lockdown corner and was 1-for-1 in Super Bowl trophies per season in Foxboro. Brandon Browner on the other corner is also gone, as is stalwart nose tackle Vince Wolfork.
New England played defense last season as well as they have since the Tedy Bruschi/Ty Law teams of the early ‘00s. Not coincidentally, last season was their first Super Bowl trophy since that period. Tom Brady’s greatness is undeniable, but that’s just enough to put the Patriots in the hunt. Whether they win it all depends on the caliber of the defense and this year there’s a big question mark by this unit.
That brings the conversation to the man who saved the Super Bowl last year. Malcolm Butler gets the luxury of beginning his career as a starter with his place in Boston sports lore already secure, off his interception of Russell Wilson in the closing seconds last February in Glendale.
Butler got as close to trial by fire as the preseason can offer. New England has played Green Bay and New Orleans thus far, and Butler has held in pretty well. I’ve watched the defense play in these games for as long as Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees were in, and Butler’s made some nice plays and just as important, the other quarterbacks seemed to be attacking the side he *wasn’t* on.
It’s not reasonable to expect Butler to be Revis, but the odds look good that Bill Belichick will have a reliable piece to work with his in secondary. Filling the other two spots is going to be a bigger challenge.
Logan Ryan was projected to start at the other corner. He hasn’t played well thus far, and Belichick is toying with moving an excellent free safety in Devin McCourty back to corner. That moves Duron Harmon into the lineup at safety, where he hasn’t played well. It’s looking like there will be a hole in the Patriot secondary, at least early on.
The burly Wolfork was a great run-stopper and over the years, New England has excelled in red-zone defense. One reason is that when a team can’t run up the middle, they’re going to have a tough time scoring in close. Even in years when the Patriot defense was generally terrible, notably 2011, red-zone execution turned their bottom line respectable.
It’s these personnel losses, along with the natural difficulty of repeating as champions that make me skeptical of New England doing any more than repeating as AFC East champs and probably getting out of the first-round (through either a bye or a playoff win).
The team, even if Brady plays all 16 games, has to get these defensive issues fixed. It’s not to say they can’t—it’s a long season and the head coach is a mastermind—but there’s serious work ahead for the Patriots.