Patriots defense in another fix, stopping the long ball
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - The Patriots' pass defense made so much progress before last week's wild loss to the 49ers, who used four touchdown tosses of at least 20 yards to take advantage of a series of breakdowns.
Yet, the Patriots have said they are correctable mistakes, which will have to be the case as they push toward the playoffs. Plus, the 49ers presented some unique challenges with mobile quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose skills were unlike some of the Pats' recent competition. That's why some players mentioned this is a week-by-week league when scouring through the problems that led to the quartet of scoring strikes, relative to their recent performance.
Consider the progress. The Patriots surrendered seven touchdown passes of at least 20 yards in their first four games, but they only allowed four in their next nine contests prior to Sunday.
"It definitely shows we need to keep improving," safety Devin McCourty said." We have things we need to work on. At the same time, it shows we've improved, we've made plays and guys have made plays against us. We have to go out there and execute and play well on Sunday (against the Jaguars)."
To understand the corrections, look at the problems.
Wide receiver Randy Moss got it started with an easily avoidable 24-yard touchdown catch. Lined up wide left, he quickly shook past cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and had him clearly beat within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. And McCourty curiously leaned toward the offensive right side of the field off the snap, perhaps getting quickly looked off by Kaepernick's eyes, and he was too late to recover to help Dennard before Moss caught the pass in the end zone.
Delanie Walker's 34-yard touchdown in the second quarter was a little more confusing. McCourty immediately shaded Moss' side off the snap, perhaps to avoid another deep pass to the former Patriot. Tight end Vernon Davis, lined up tight right, ran a seam route past linebacker Brandon Spikes, who should have made contact to re-route Davis. And Walker, who was offset of Davis, curled toward the sideline and ran a go-route past linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who also should have done a better job to re-route his assignment, particularly since there wasn't a play-fake in the backfield.
This left Dennard aligned with an impossible matchup against both Davis and Walker. Credit the Niners with striking gold against the defensive call, but Spikes and Hightower should have made it more difficult on Kaepernick by checking their guys. This would have at least given Dennard and McCourty a chance to compete for the ball.
Michael Crabtree's 27-yard touchdown in the third quarter involved another breakdown, though the 49ers did a nice job to attack the cover-2 with two go-routes on the right side. Spikes was supposed to check Crabtree in the first 5 yards to slow him down. Spikes didn't, so Crabtree split safety Steve Gregory and McCourty far too quickly and Kaepernick delivered a crisp throw over the middle. The play wasn't covered well on the defensive left side, so Gregory was frozen to protect that half before breaking toward Crabtree.
Crabtree's 38-yard touchdown was an obvious issue in tackling. He caught a 6-yard hitch and spun past cornerback Kyle Arrington, who has been a sure-handed tackler in his run with the Pats but barely touched the receiver on this play. Don't blame the seven-man blitz on this one. Tackling is tackling, and it's an easy fix.
It wasn't all bad, though. McCourty did make a very sound play to intercept Kaepernick in the end zone to close out the first drive of the second half. Kaepernick thought he had Moss breaking free past Gregory toward the post, but McCourty stayed low enough to be out of Kaepernick's view and in position to undercut the route. This is another example of a play McCourty has learned to make while gaining a better understanding of his new position.
There isn't a magic formula to eliminate the long gains altogether, but better technique in the back seven will help. The linebackers can get better engaging their assignments over the middle to help the safeties and corners make more plays.
The Patriots made these types of corrections after giving up four 20-yard touchdown passes against the Bills in Week 4. They know they can do it again.
"Absolutely, everything is a correctable mistake," Gregory said. "Nothing was a mental error or anything like that. It was all physical stuff that we can get corrected and plays that we can make in our room."