Patriots' Defense Is Due for a Revival

The New Orleans Saints are coming to Foxborough as a team in search of a purpose after losing seven of their last eight games and watching their season disappear after a promising start. The Saints defeated the Patriots in the preseason, but that was a different team and a different time. Now they are a team desperately looking for a way to win. The New England Patriots have had their own troubles. As PI contributor John MacKenna explains, the Patriots defense is ready to turn things around.

It's time for the New England Patriots to play some defense.

The New Orleans Saints come to Gillette Stadium on Sunday riding a five-game losing streak and sporting a lowly scoring average of 15.8 points per game (26th in the NFL). Their starting running back is out for the season. Their quarterback has thrown 12 interceptions and only seven touchdown passes. They rank last in the NFL with a takeaway/giveaway differential of minus-13. They don't even have a home field since Hurricane Katrina trashed the Superdome.

Meanwhile, the Patriots' defense will take the field with nine of 11 starting positions manned by players who either started or made major contributions during last year's playoff run.

The defensive line is the same as it was in '04. Three of the starting linebackers are the same, and the fourth, Rosevelt Colvin is an erstwhile star who has played very well of late. Even the beleaguered defensive backfield has two starters back from the '04 campaign.

The subpar performance of the defense through the first nine games is understandable. The team began the season missing all three of its inside linebackers from the '04 campaign. Then star safety Rodney Harrison was lost for the season on Oct. 2 when he suffered a knee injury against the Steelers. The team's top defensive lineman, Richard Seymour, has missed four games, and six defensive backs have missed time with injuries.

There has been a major change on the sidelines as well, with Eric Mangini replacing Romeo Crennel as the defensive coordinator. The change in coordinators--and the related replacement of the Mangini at defensive backfield coach--could explain some of the defensive problems.

With all those absences, the dropoff in defensive performance has been prodigious. The Patriots are allowing 378.2 yards and 26.2 points a game, up from last year's averages of 310.8 yards and 16.3 points. Last year, the Patriots held eight of their 16 opponents to less than 16 points. This year, every opponent has scored at least 16.

The rap on the '04 Patriots was that they were susceptible to the pass because they had suffered too many injuries in the defensive backfield. But that team held opponents to an average of 212.5 passing yards a game, versus 255.1 yards this year, which ranks 31st out of 32 NFL teams.

Now that Bruschi and Seymour are back, the defense looks much like it did in '04. Harrison has been replaced by Michael Stone or James Sanders, LB Ted Johnson has been replaced by Colvin, and CB Randall Gay has been replaced by Ellis Hobbs.

The dropoff from Harrison to Stone or Sanders is significant, but the replacement of Johnson and Gay with Colvin and Hobbs should not be a problem.

When the Patriots signed Colvin two years ago, observers hailed the former Chicago Bears star as the best defensive free agent on the market. He had logged 10.5 sacks in each of the previous two seasons. Johnson brought a lot to the table, but Colvin does too.

Likewise, Gay was a rookie last year and was not even selected in the draft. Hobbs is a rookie this year, but he was a third-round pick, the 84th player selected. He should be able to match or exceed Gay's '04 performance.

And what about young players getting better year-to-year? Four defensive starters--safety Eugene Wilson, CB Asante Samuel, DE Ty Warren and DT Vincent Wilfork--have less than three years of NFL experience and should still be learning and improving.

If Bruschi and Seymour can stay in the lineup and the other starters can stay healthy, the Patriots should be essentially the same team, dealing only with the loss of Harrison.

What it all adds up to is that the worst of the retooling should be over, and Patriots fans scan expect significant improvement every week, starting this Sunday.

Last year, the Patriots protected their injury-depleted defensive backfield by applying heavy pressure to opposing quarterbacks and logging 45 sacks (third best in the NFL). Starting this week, look for them to resume that approach, with linebackers Willie McGinest and Colvin getting after Saints QB Aaron Brooks. The Dolphins sacked Brooks six times on Oct. 30, and the Patriots might do the same. They have only 13 sacks through nine games, but with their front seven back intact, it's a new day.

The Saints are better on offense than their record suggests. They have a solid pair of receivers in Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth. Horn has missed three games, but he has been back for the last two, and he gained over 1,300 yards receiving in three of the last five seasons. Stallworth has 38 catches for 548 yards this year.

Brooks has had a terrible season, completing only 54.3 percent of his passes for a quarterback rating of 66.6, but he is capable of heating it up, having thrown for over 275 yards in four games last year.

The Saints lost starting RB Deuce McAllister in Week 5, but they still rank 12th in the NFL with 122.4 rushing yards per game. Former Patriot Antowain Smith is averaging 4.8 yards per carry and gained 110 yards against the Bears on Nov. 6. Aaron Stecker has rushed for 170 yards, and the Saints have just signed former Cowboy RB Anthony Thomas. The Saints have a big offensive line, led by guard Jermane Mayberry (6'4" 325), center LeCharles Bentley (6'2" 313) and tackle Wayne Gandy (6'4", 315).

The Saints give up a lot of sacks (28 on the season, fourth-most in the NFL) and interceptions (13, sixth-worst.)

On defense, the Saints could pose a problem for the pass-happy Patriots, as they have held opponent to 167.8 passing yards per game, fifth best in the NFL. They are more susceptible to the run (139.3 yards per game, 30th), but the Patriots aren't running much these days with Corey Dillon banged up and Patrick Pass on the shelf.

Despite their 2-7 record, the Saints are an unpredictable team, and they should be well rested coming off their bye week. The Green Bay Packers blew them out, 52-3, on Oct. 9, but they nearly upset the Falcons on Oct. 16 and played the Bears tough (20-17) two weeks ago.


John MacKenna is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna" or


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It's time for the New England Patriots to play some defense.

The New Orleans Saints come to Gillette Stadium on Sunday riding a five-game losing streak and sporting a lowly scoring average of 15.8 points per game (26th in the NFL). Their starting running back is out for the season. Their quarterback has thrown 12 interceptions and only seven touchdown passes. They rank last in the NFL with a takeaway/giveaway differential of minus-13. They don't even have a home field since Hurricane Katrina trashed the Superdome.

Meanwhile, the Patriots' defense will take the field with nine of 11 starting positions manned by players who either started or made major contributions during last year's playoff run.

The defensive line is the same as it was in '04. Three of the starting linebackers are the same, and the fourth, Rosevelt Colvin is an erstwhile star who has played very well of late. Even the beleaguered defensive backfield has two starters back from the '04 campaign.

The subpar performance of the defense through the first nine games is understandable. The team began the season missing all three of its inside linebackers from the '04 campaign. Then star safety Rodney Harrison was lost for the season on Oct. 2 when he suffered a knee injury against the Steelers. The team's top defensive lineman, Richard Seymour, has missed four games, and six defensive backs have missed time with injuries.

There has been a major change on the sidelines as well, with Eric Mangini replacing Romeo Crennel as the defensive coordinator. The change in coordinators--and the related replacement of the Mangini at defensive backfield coach--could explain some of the defensive problems.

With all those absences, the dropoff in defensive performance has been prodigious. The Patriots are allowing 378.2 yards and 26.2 points a game, up from last year's averages of 310.8 yards and 16.3 points. Last year, the Patriots held eight of their 16 opponents to less than 16 points. This year, every opponent has scored at least 16.

The rap on the '04 Patriots was that they were susceptible to the pass because they had suffered too many injuries in the defensive backfield. But that team held opponents to an average of 212.5 passing yards a game, versus 255.1 yards this year, which ranks 31st out of 32 NFL teams.

Now that Bruschi and Seymour are back, the defense looks much like it did in '04. Harrison has been replaced by Michael Stone or James Sanders, LB Ted Johnson has been replaced by Colvin, and CB Randall Gay has been replaced by Ellis Hobbs.

The dropoff from Harrison to Stone or Sanders is significant, but the replacement of Johnson and Gay with Colvin and Hobbs should not be a problem.

When the Patriots signed Colvin two years ago, observers hailed the former Chicago Bears star as the best defensive free agent on the market. He had logged 10.5 sacks in each of the previous two seasons. Johnson brought a lot to the table, but Colvin does too.

Likewise, Gay was a rookie last year and was not even selected in the draft. Hobbs is a rookie this year, but he was a third-round pick, the 84th player selected. He should be able to match or exceed Gay's '04 performance.

And what about young players getting better year-to-year? Four defensive starters--safety Eugene Wilson, CB Asante Samuel, DE Ty Warren and DT Vincent Wilfork--have less than three years of NFL experience and should still be learning and improving.

If Bruschi and Seymour can stay in the lineup and the other starters can stay healthy, the Patriots should be essentially the same team, dealing only with the loss of Harrison.

What it all adds up to is that the worst of the retooling should be over, and Patriots fans scan expect significant improvement every week, starting this Sunday.

Last year, the Patriots protected their injury-depleted defensive backfield by applying heavy pressure to opposing quarterbacks and logging 45 sacks (third best in the NFL). Starting this week, look for them to resume that approach, with linebackers Willie McGinest and Colvin getting after Saints QB Aaron Brooks. The Dolphins sacked Brooks six times on Oct. 30, and the Patriots might do the same. They have only 13 sacks through nine games, but with their front seven back intact, it's a new day.

The Saints are better on offense than their record suggests. They have a solid pair of receivers in Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth. Horn has missed three games, but he has been back for the last two, and he gained over 1,300 yards receiving in three of the last five seasons. Stallworth has 38 catches for 548 yards this year.

Brooks has had a terrible season, completing only 54.3 percent of his passes for a quarterback rating of 66.6, but he is capable of heating it up, having thrown for over 275 yards in four games last year.

The Saints lost starting RB Deuce McAllister in Week 5, but they still rank 12th in the NFL with 122.4 rushing yards per game. Former Patriot Antowain Smith is averaging 4.8 yards per carry and gained 110 yards against the Bears on Nov. 6. Aaron Stecker has rushed for 170 yards, and the Saints have just signed former Cowboy RB Anthony Thomas. The Saints have a big offensive line, led by guard Jermane Mayberry (6'4" 325), center LeCharles Bentley (6'2" 313) and tackle Wayne Gandy (6'4", 315).

The Saints give up a lot of sacks (28 on the season, fourth-most in the NFL) and interceptions (13, sixth-worst.)

On defense, the Saints could pose a problem for the pass-happy Patriots, as they have held opponent to 167.8 passing yards per game, fifth best in the NFL. They are more susceptible to the run (139.3 yards per game, 30th), but the Patriots aren't running much these days with Corey Dillon banged up and Patrick Pass on the shelf.

Despite their 2-7 record, the Saints are an unpredictable team, and they should be well rested coming off their bye week. The Green Bay Packers blew them out, 52-3, on Oct. 9, but they nearly upset the Falcons on Oct. 16 and played the Bears tough (20-17) two weeks ago.

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