It should come at no surprise, really. The Patriots entered Sunday with the worst passing defense. Forty-eight hours before kickoff, they cut a starting corner, Leigh Bodden, and placed their nickel corner, Ras-I Dowling, on injured reserve.
It's no shock that Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers' offense picked them apart, tore the pass defense (if you can even call that "defense") to shreds and showed the rest of the league just how vulnerable Bill Belichick's secondary has become.
Even on an afternoon when the run defense played pretty well and when the defense was able to sack Big Ben five times, it didn't matter. Each time you thought the Patriots would get a three-and-out, Roethlisberger found a receiver in the Patriots' cushiony zone. The Steelers were 10-of-16 on third downs, keeping Tom Brady off the field.
The Patriots have failed in man coverage, which makes it difficult to blitz opposing quarterbacks, and on Sunday their zone got dinked and dunked on, similar to what Brady does to opponents.
Patriots fans can generally rest easy on two givens — that Brady and the offense will pick things back up and put up 30-plus points a game and that Belichick will figure out a way to make the defense work. The offense isn't a huge concern, but how come the Patriots' passing defense is still this bad?
Passing defense and third-down defense were by far the Patriots' biggest Achilles' heels last season. Moves were made in the draft and free agency to improve those areas, but we're at the midseason point and the Patriots are exactly where they spent most of last season — in the cellar, in terms of both categories.
One part of the problem has been Devin McCourty's sophomore slump. Without the shutdown ability he displayed last season, quarterbacks are able to hit their top receivers. Injuries and inconsistency at the free safety position are also a big reason for the struggles. Patrick Chung can only do so much, and he's better in the box anyway.
One of the Patriots' younger players is going to have to step up and make a name for himself. Belichick will do his best to scheme the Patriots' defense in a way to mask the weak personnel, but, as we saw last season, that can only do so much.
The onus falls on Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown, James Ihedigbo, Antwaun Molden and Phililp Adams. Right now, those are the defensive backs with question marks, and the players whom opposing quarterbacks will target. There is not a ton of experience in this group, but it will take at least one of the aforementioned players to come into his own in the second half of the season to get things turned around. One key player could be Barrett, once he gets healthy. The Patriots really like his athleticism, and he could be the playmaker the secondary needs.