By Matt McCarthy, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots defense cost Tom Brady a Super Bowl six months ago. I just hope it won’t cost him another one six months from now.
Now that the Patriots have the first two days of training camp under their belt, it’s still hard to look at this defense and feel like it is significantly better than the unit that gave up 538 yards to a backup quarterback in Minneapolis in February.
In an offseason where off-the-field drama grabbed most of the Patriots-related headlines, little attention was paid to the glaring on-field problems the Pats still have.
What I find perhaps most troubling is that it seems like the Patriots themselves paid little attention to those problems.
Ten of the 11 defensive starters from the Super Bowl remain on the team and will likely reprise their roles this year. Only 40-year-old James Harrison is gone.
Maybe a little change would have been okay?
The Patriots were 29th in the NFL in yards allowed last year. Only the Colts, the Giants, and the Buccaneers allowed more. The Pats were 30th in passing yards allowed per game, behind only the Colts and Giants.
Malcolm Butler is gone (did you hear he didn’t play in the Super Bowl?). Jason McCourty is in, but it’s fair to question if he is the same player he was with the Titans a few years ago.
The Pats did make two notable additions on the defensive side of the ball this offseason: defensive end Adrian Clayborn and defensive tackle Danny Shelton. Both are good players and should help stabilize a defensive line that was poor at times last year, especially in the Super Bowl.
But those additions alone won’t stabilize the defense.
The best hope of fixing the problems that sank the Patriots last year likely centers around the expected return of Dont’a Hightower. Hightower is arguably the most important player on that side of the ball and there’s no denying that his loss to a season-ending pectoral injury was monumental in 2017.
That said, it’s hard to believe the star linebacker will stay healthy in 2018 given his injury history. Hightower has suited up 16 times in a season just once in his six-year career.
When Hightower inevitably misses time, Elandon Roberts will see more snaps. Marquis Flowers will see more snaps. Kyle Van Noy will play every snap.
Maybe Jordan Richards could see more time in the Big Nickel?
There appear to be no internal reinforcements, either. Patriots did not select a linebacker until the fifth round of the 2018 draft when they took two guys named Ja’Whaun Bentley and Christian Sam.
Let me know if they make the team.
If Hightower gets hurt again, there is no backup plan. Counting on the health of one player, particularly one as injury prone as Hightower, is not a recipe for success in the NFL.
If there is anyone who can pull a rabbit out of his hat with a subpar defense, it’s Bill Belichick. We saw it last year. The Pats opened up the season against the Chiefs with the worst defensive performance of the Belichick-era (42 points allowed). They still got to the Super Bowl…where they turned in the second-worst defensive performance ever under the Hoodie (41 points allowed).
Smoke and mirrors can get you to the Super Bowl, but to win the Super Bowl, you need to have talent.
I think it’s fair to wonder if they have the talent on that side of the ball.
You can hear Matt McCarthy on various 98.5 The Sports Hub programs. Follow him on Twitter @MattMcCarthy985.