New England Patriots' defence is lost but bank on Bill Belichick to find the answer

Jay Asser 4/10/2017
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Burned: Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore gets beaten in coverage. Picture: Getty Images.

Forget an undefeated season, the New England Patriots right now are struggling to look like a playoff team.

The defending champions having dropped half of their games through the first four weeks – a far cry from the dominance many predicted for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Co this season.

The good news? There certainly won’t be any pressure of finishing 16-0 and subsequently 19-0 to complete a perfect season. We’re way past that point, with the team having been knocked down multiple times already and being reminded of their own mortality.

The bad news is that mortality is much more defined and to a greater extent than anyone could have expected.

It’s almost impossible to point the finger at Brady and the offence. The 40-year-old quarterback didn’t look sharp in the season-opening loss to Kansas City, but has since completed 73.1 per cent of his passes for an average of 377.3 yards through three games, while posting a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10:0.

Basically, Brady is once again having an MVP-calibre season and yet New England have dropped two of their first three games at Gillette Stadium, which has normally been a fortress.

It’s no secret what’s plaguing them. Their defence, and especially their retooled secondary, has been downright terrible.

Matt Patricia’s unit ranks dead last in the league in total defence with 456.8 yards allowed per game and 31st in points surrendered with 32.0 per contest.

Pass rushing was an area of concern coming into the season and so far, there’s been little reason for optimism as the Patriots are tied for the fifth-fewest sacks in the league with eight. The lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks has exacerbated the issues with the secondary, where miscommunication and blown coverages have resulted in big plays.

Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was handed a rich five-year, $65 million contract in the offseason, has been burned countless times and looks like a downgrade from the reliable Logan Ryan, now in Tennessee.

Gilmore has flashed in brief moments in his new digs, but too often he’s made mental mistakes, such as allowing Tyreek Hill to run past him for a 75-yard touchdown in Week 1 and committing an illegal hands to the face penalty to wipe out a third-down sack on Carolina’s final possession, eventually leading to Graham Gano’s game-winning field goal.

Opposite cornerback Malcolm Butler has been shaky as well, while safety Devin McCourty, normally one of the best at his position, has uncharacteristically been out of place at times. All of that has resulted in the Patriots defence resembling Swiss cheese and in-turn placing far too much responsibility on the shoulders of Brady to score on nearly every possession.

Even if it wasn’t for the talent New England possess on that side of the ball, this would still be embarrassing because Belichick is (rightly) considered a defensive mastermind.

This is a coach who traded his best pass-rusher in Chandler Jones before the start of last season and then shipped out uber-talented linebacker Jamie Collins after seven games, only for the defence to improve, allow the fewest points in the league and be part of a Super Bowl victory.

It’s entirely possible Belichick pulls off another magic trick with this unit and whips them into shape before the end of the season, but the margin for error has exponentially dropped.

Even with Brady functioning like he has, the Patriots won’t be infallible in the postseason, especially if they’re without home-field advantage, which is now a much more difficult proposition.

But as tempting as it may be to pour dirt on a dynasty whose decline is long overdue, no one should be burying New England just yet. It was only three years ago when the Patriots started a disappointing 2-2, only to win 13 of their next 15 games and hoist a fourth Super Bowl.

Circumstances are different this time around, but the mindset remains: Belichick wants to play his best football in November and December, not in the first month of the season.

There’s time to turn it around and if anyone should be given the benefit of the doubt, it’s Belichick, Brady and the Patriots.

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Five iconic sporting protests as NFL players take a knee during national anthem

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Sunday proved to be a landmark day in US sports history as NFL players across the country knelt or locked arms during the national anthem in response to attacks from President Donald Trump.

It was far from the first time sports and politics were intertwined, with athletes often having used their platform to make a statement.

Here’s a look at five iconic sporting protests.

DAVISON AT THE DERBY

Political activist Emily Davison, threw herself in front of King George V’s horse, Anmer, during the 1913 Epsom Derby, to try to earn women the right to vote. She died in the incident.

Davison paid with her life for her protest. (Image courtesy RTE)

Davison paid with her life for her protest. (Image courtesy RTE)

BLACK POWER SALUTE

African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, after winning gold and silver in the 200m sprint, as a silent protest against racial discrimination of black people in the United States.

“If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro’. We are black and we are proud of being black,” Smith later said in the press conference. “Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

Tommie Smith's protest has become one of sports' most iconic moments.

Tommie Smith’s protest has become one of sports’ most iconic moments.

TAKE A KNEE

NFL players across the US kneeled during the National Anthem in response to an attack from President Donald Trump.

Members of the Dallas Cowboys linked arms and knelt before the anthem on Sunday.

Members of the Dallas Cowboys linked arms and knelt before the anthem on Sunday.

FOWLER BACKS DOCKERS

The legendary Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler showed his empathy with 500 sacked Merseyside dockers revealing a t-shirt urging support during a game against SK Brann, of Bergen in 1997.

He was fined 900 pounds by UEFA for his actions.

Robbie Fowler showed his solidarity with dockers in 1997.

Robbie Fowler showed his solidarity with dockers in 1997.

TENNIS BALL PROTEST

Basel and Luzern fans were so outraged at a change to a kick-off time they threw thousands of tennis balls on to the pitch.

The biggest match of the Swiss Super League was moved to 12:45pm on Sunday, November 7, 2010 because Swiss TV didn’t want it to clash with the ATP Basel final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

We have to admit the football fans’ response by throwing tennis balls in protest was quite funny.

Basel fans’ protest in 2010. (Image courtesy Reuters)

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CTE diagnosis raises more questions in Aaron Hernandez saga

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The cloud cast by the Aaron Hernandez tragedy has become menacingly darker.

The life of the 27-year-old which hurtled into a nightmare of murder charges and violence ended last April with the use of a bedsheet in a prison cell.

While the sporting world was shocked at such a brutal ending, little was made about the NFL’s role in his demise.

Questions were rightly posed about the inability of the Patriots to see the warning signs despite the alarm bells shrieking.

Yes, professional athletes are adults but was protecting such a vulnerable, impressionable man who clearly had deep rooted problems a burden too far?

Yet following stunning revelations last week that Hernandez was severely affected by CTE – the degenerative brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head – this story, which the families of the victims thought had reached its conclusion, has suddenly started to move in a new direction.

And for commissioner Roger Goodell and his attempts to brush aside the concussion crisis which is threatening the future of American football, it makes extremely uncomfortable reading.

Medics at Boston University, who have become the leading voices in the battle to heighten awareness of the sport’s dangers, revealed Hernandez was indeed suffering from Stage 3 CTE – a level of damage only seen in ex-players around the 60-year-old mark. No-one this young has ever been affected so badly.

Of course, Hernandez clearly had severe mental issues. He wasted a multi-million dollar contract by gunning down defenseless Odin Lloyd, who was dating his fiancée’s sister, following an argument.

There were other scrapes and gangster-like behaviour. Not the actions of someone whose faculties are fully intact.

So while the debate over whether CTE – which is known to cause unduly aggressive, violent and wild behavioural swings – actually caused him to act so recklessly is a tremendously difficult one to navigate, it’s undeniable that his time in the NFL wreaked havoc with his head.

A recent study found signs of the disease in 110 of 111 NFL players whose brains were inspected.

Not all of them became psychopathic murderers.

Aaron Hernandez's death has now been linked to CTE.

Aaron Hernandez’s death has now been linked to CTE.

In fact, in the similarly tragic cases of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, the only shots fired were fatally at themselves.

Though who’s to say that it didn’t play any part at all in his shocking demise? His injuries were caused by football so it’s fair to speculate that his death was also linked.

Hernandez’s attorney Jose Baez is certainly playing that card.

He accuses the NFL of hiding the true dangers of the sport.

“Defendants were fully aware of the dangers of exposing NFL players to repeated traumatic head impacts,” Baez said in the lawsuit. “Yet, defendants concealed and misrepresented the risks.”

The concussion timebomb has been ticking for a while – it’s already cost almost $1 billion in lawsuits though President Donald Trump stupidly accused referees of “ruining the game” at the weekend with their clampdown on dangerous challenges – yet could now be ready to explode.

Science is working hard to unearth more harsh truths but isn’t there yet.

Those in the game will point to those ex-players who are totally fine. They will stress the stats mask the realities. Just like boxers, NFL players know the risks when they sign on the dotted line.

This gruesome new chapter, however, must be the start of more preventative measures.

Better helmets have been introduced. Supposedly safer ways to tackle have also been brought in to not only safeguard today’s stars, but those of tomorrow as well.

The Canadian Football League recently announced full contact practice sessions are to be banned during the season.

The NFL currently have 14 per season which was agreed in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement so don’t expect any major overhaul right now.

The legal battles will continue to rage as will the debates about player safety.

Yet with all these new gruesome details being laid bare, how can the NFL survive without making drastic changes?

The answer, if Goodell is listening, is it surely cannot.

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