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Pass defense remains Patriots' biggest flaw

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Recent posts by Kevin Fishbain

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Posted Oct. 31, 2011 @ 7:05 p.m. ET
By Kevin Fishbain

Sometimes you need a perfect game to beat the Patriots. The Steelers certainly had a perfect game plan and executed it well in their 25-17 win on Sunday.

The Patriots can be fortunate they lost by only eight, as Pittsburgh dominated every facet of the game. The Steelers drew up the blueprint on how to slow down Tom Brady's attack and they further magnified the ineptitudes in the Patriots' secondary.

Last season, it was Brady picking apart the Steelers' defense with short-to-intermediate throws in a 39-26 win. On Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger had no problem with the deep ball being taken from him, as he found holes in the Patriots' defense en route to 365 yards passing, completing passes to nine different receivers.

Brady, on the other hand, couldn't go score-for-score with Big Ben. The Steelers' corners played tight man coverage, holding Wes Welker to 39 yards and Aaron Hernandez to just nine.

The Patriots' offense is not a huge concern, though. Brady and Bill Belichick find a way to make the necessary changes when a team shuts them down as Pittsburgh did, and Brady has the talent and weapons to keep New England's offense firing on all cylinders.

The defense remains the problem, especially against the pass and on third down, just like it was last season.

The PFW spin

The big difference between the offense and the defense is that Belichick doesn't have the type of personnel on defense that can make big improvements after a poor outing.

Only 48 hours before kickoff, the Patriots cut CB Leigh Bodden and placed rookie CB Ras-I Dowling on injured reserve. Dowling only played in two games, but he started both, telling you all you need to know about how the coaching staff felt about him.

That left the Patriots with four corners on Sunday — Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Antwaun Molden and Phillip Adams. Molden got thrust into the nickel and was pulled in the second half in favor of Adams, a second-year player who spent most of his time on special teams last season. The secondary remained without S Josh Barrett, who missed the game with a thumb injury.

That's not the lineup you necessarily want against a Steelers team with four legit pass-catching threats — Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Heath Miller — who single-handedly killed the middle of the Patriots' defense on the Steelers' first-quarter drives.

Belichick needs to find a way to mask the fact that the Patriots simply are lacking talent in the secondary. Even when the front seven stepped up on Sunday, the pass defense failed.

On back-to-back drives in the third quarter, the defensive line made big plays to force Roethlisberger into 3rd-and-longs. On the Steelers' first drive of the second half, great penetration by DL Gerard Warren and Andre Carter stuffed Isaac Redman for a two-yard loss, leading to 3rd-and-15. ILB Brandon Spikes put good pressure on Roethlisberger, only to see Big Ben hit Sanders for 17 yards, as Sanders was wide open past the first-down marker.

On the next drive, a Carter sack followed by an incompletion led to a 3rd-and-12 for the Steelers. Big Ben found Brown for 19 yards on the play.

The Steelers converted 10-of-16 third downs. Nine of those were through the air, and Roethlisberger threw for 107 yards on those completions, a staggering average of 11.9 yards per third-down completion.

The Patriots' third-down defense is still a huge problem, as it is ranked 31st in the league. Even when the pass rush is getting better and the run defense has been stout, the secondary is letting the team down by giving up big plays.

There is no break in the schedule, as the Patriots face Eli Manning and the Giants' air attack next week. Manning is having a very good season and will be certain to test the Patriots' secondary. Creating turnovers will be a must going forward for New England's defense, as that is what helped get the Patriots to 14-2 last season. Belichick may want to get creative with his safeties in coverage to take pressure off the corners. It should also help getting back ILB Dane Fletcher, who is decent in coverage in the flats.

The offense will correct itself; it's how the defense responds going forward that will determine if this Patriots team can return to the Super Bowl.

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