The Patriots' musical chairs act on defense continued on Sunday. To start the game, they trotted out special-teams ace LB Niko Koutouvides, DB Nate Jones, who had been signed just days earlier, and WR/special-teams captain Matthew Slater at safety.
The most recent trio of no-name players to fill in the Patriots' back seven aren't at fault for New England giving up 21 points in the fourth quarter in a 31-24 win over the Colts, they actually played well for the most part, but it's telling.
The Patriots showed in the first three quarters, when they built a 31-3 lead, why they should be considered among the AFC's top clubs, but the defense has a ways to go and Bill Belichick appears to still be grasping at straws in the back end.
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It's a stretch to say the Patriots miss FS Brandon Meriweather. He was overrated and lacked discipline, and has been exposed even more in Chicago, where he is no longer starting. But Belichick can't find the answer to help his corners over the top.
Meriweather took risks, sure, but he did make plays to fill the stat sheet, which is why he was rewarded with two Pro Bowls. As hollow as those Pro Bowl appearances seem, he made more plays than the group has made this year.
Slater joined James Ihedigbo, Sterling Moore, Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett as Patriots who have started at safety this season, in addition to Patrick Chung, the rock of the unit who has missed five games.
It's obviously not all about interceptions, and Belichick probably would be the first to say so, but the Patriots' safeties have had two interceptions (one apiece for Brown and Chung) this season, when Meriweather had eight in 2009-10.
In Sunday's win, Dan Orlovsky was able to pick apart the Patriots' secondary late in the game. The big lead certainly added a cushion, but there's no reason someone like Orlovsky should have put up numbers like 30-of-37 passing for 353 yards.
On a 33-yard touchdown to Pierre Garcon, Moore, who was playing corner, got turned around and Slater didn't get there in time for the help.
On the next Colts' possession, Garcon was single covered by CB Devin McCourty, in his first game back from injury, and beat McCourty for a 40-yard gain with no safety help.
The fact that McCourty has not played up to the talent he showed in his rookie season has hurt the unit, but the revolving door at safety has not helped at all. The Patriots lead the league in passing yards allowed, but that's a stat to take with a grain of salt — the Packers give up the second-most. What cannot be ignored are the 62 passing plays the Patriots have allowed that have gone for more than 20 yards and the fact that teams are converting 44 percent of third-down opportunities into firsts. It should be noted that while the pass rush has improved a bit with Andre Carter, it's still not near the point where it can make a big impact on the passing defense.
It's not just Meriweather you have to wonder about. Before cutting Meriweather, the Patriots parted ways with FS James Sanders, Meriweather's backup who had plenty of starting experience.
There are obviously plenty of reasons why Belichick sent the two safeties packing. If you don't work in Belichick's system, you're not going to last long in New England. He is a master at evaluating what he has on his roster, but he hasn't found a permanent solution at safety.
When the playoffs come around, the Patriots' defense should be at full strength, and Koutouvides won't have to play linebacker and neither will Tracy White with Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher back. But will the team need Slater and Julian Edelman to help at a DB spot, or can a member of the secondary step up?
Chung's return should help immensely, and the pressure will be on him to make plays, but this Patriots team has yet to show it can stop opponents consistently enough, and it couldn't have been more evident in the fourth quarter against the worst team in the NFL.
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