PFW associate editor Kevin Fishbain talked with CBS color commentator and former NFL defensive back Solomon Wilcots for this week's "Five questions with" segment. Wilcots will be on the call of the Patriots-Raiders game this Sunday for CBS.
PFW: From what you have seen, what is it about the Patriots' offensive attack that makes them go, and how can a team slow them down?
Wilcots: They have precision and timing in their passing game that really makes it go. They use spread formations, five guys and empty backfield sets. There is no way coverage can hold against all five guys, particularly if protection holds up, and (Tom Brady) won't hold onto it long, he gets rid of it. Routes are short and intermediate, sometimes with one deep route. He always, and I mean always, has somewhere to go with the football. Rarely will the defense get lucky and have all five guys covered up. If pressure gets on, then the game can break down, like with the Jets last year in the postseason. Pressure on the quarterback can bite (the offense), disrupting the route can bite you; those are all components that affect the timing of the passing game. If you can affect the timing by pressure, a tipped ball or jamming the receiver, then you can have some success. You need one of those three things working defensively. They are so good at timing and precision that it makes it very difficult to take it away.
PFW: On the opposite side, the defense is still giving up a lot of yards, what are they missing on that side of the ball?
Wilcots: It starts with the pass rush. They haven't rushed the passer in two years, and it's gotten worse this year. They cannot get to the quarterback and they certainly can't do it consistently when they need to on critical plays and critical downs. I don't care who you have on the back end, when quarterbacks become comfortable, they can pick you apart. Any quarterback in this league, if you don't hit him or get his jersey dirty, he will become comfortable and you're done. I can't talk about the pressure part of it enough. Breakdowns in coverage? Yes, those happen. Buffalo was spreading them out; too, giving them some of the same poison, and (Fred) Jackson can catch it out of the backfield. Buffalo fought fire with fire. Without the pressure component, the Patriots couldn't hold up.
PFW: Going against a Raiders team with a back like Darren McFadden, what do you have to do as a defense to slow him down?
Wilcots: The problem with McFadden is he is just as good of an inside runner as an outside runner. We all remember Ray Rice as a rookie sort of torched (the Patriots) in the playoffs a couple years ago. McFadden is that kind of runner inside and just as dangerous on the edge. He can turn the corner with the best running backs in this league. With some running backs, we want to get him running sideways or downhill. If you make (McFadden) run sideways, he will turn the corner and still score. If you make him go north-south, he will crease you up the middle and burn you that way. (The Patriots) need to tackle. The Raiders' strength on offense plays to the Patriots' strength, their run defense. The Raiders want to run the ball. If they can achieve some kind of balance between throwing and running it, it will be a long day for the Patriots.
PFW: The Raiders' front four did a good job against Mark Sanchez and the Jets, can they do that against an offense like New England's?
Wilcots: They have eight really good defensive linemen. They are big, and I mean huge. They can run and they have a rotation. With (Richard) Seymour in the middle, you're going to need two to block him. It's kind of like the Giants' D-line from (Super Bowl XLII). Tommy Kelly, John Henderson and Matt Shaughnessy — they're all good. You can't double-team everyone, and the Patriots may have a rookie playing at tackle. (The Raiders) have to get pressure in the face of Tom Brady, not pressure off the edge or corner, but pushing the pocket into the face of Brady, forcing him to go left or right. They don't want to let him step up in the pocket, which is easier said than done, but they have the personnel to do it. Seymour has every reason to get going in this one.
PFW: The Patriots' secondary is struggling with a pair of young safeties. How important is the communication back there for the secondary?
Wilcots: There's a lot to learn. People don't understand being a safety in the NFL is like being a quarterback on offense, and middle linebacker is kind of the same thing. I will say this — you have got to have a very high football IQ. When teams motion and shift, they have to process info like the quarterbacks and then get people lined up to be in position. When the ball is snapped, everybody on their own and they have to be disciplined and follow their assignments. Safeties' knowledge is critically important. You look at the Patriots, who are ranked 32nd in pass defense, well, the Raiders are not much better. Both teams lost to the Bills for the same reason — they got huge leads and the pass defense could not stop anyone. We saw what happened to the Patriots. The Raiders allowed (Ryan) Fitzpatrick to score on five straight possessions. I'm going to tell you this, I don't know who has the best pass defense in the league, but it's not much better than the worst. All of them are getting torched. I did a game in St. Louis last week, Torrey Smith, a rookie, scored three touchdowns in the first quarter. The lockout and the lack of being on the field has hurt secondaries and pass-defense schemes more than any other area of our game, and quarterbacks are exploiting it. Safeties are not ready. They are breaking down, the communication is not there and the cohesiveness is not there. With the lockout, no OTAs and a short time in minicamp, secondaries are floundering, not matching up to routes, not playing zone well, not playing man well, they can't sync up with blitzes. It's the worst I've seen.