Headed into this season, one of the areas most experts pegged as a weakness was the Patriots' defensive backfield . After three games, the Patriots secondary isn't only a concern; it's a major problem.
New England finished the 2005 season ranked 31st in the NFL in pass defense. They weren't only bombed by Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, but also the likes of Gus Frerotte, Kelly Holcomb and Aaron Brooks. With Ellis Hobbs entering his second season and the return of emotional leader Rodney Harrison, the Patriots pass defense was supposed to be much improved this year. So far, that hasn't been the case as blown assignments and sloppy tackling currently has New England worried about a pass defense that's 23rd in the league after three games.
The Patriots' secondary started the season on a high note against Buffalo. New England held Bills quarterback J.P. Losman to 164 yards passing. Hobbs showed flashes of being the Patriots next No. 1 corner by shadowing the Bills top receiver, Lee Evans, and limiting him to just 2 receptions for 25 yards.
The secondary carried that stellar play over to the next week in New York. The Patriots only allowed the Jets 104 yards passing in the first half. However, ever since Jerricho Cotchery made an amazing 71-yard touchdown reception late in the third quarter, the Patriots secondary has looked very similar to the 2005 version.
Chad Pennington passed for over 300 yards against the Patriots, with most of those yards coming in the second half where New England defensive backs missed numerous tackles in the open field. One week later against a struggling Denver offense, the secondary didn't fair much better.
Broncos receiver Javon Walker beat Hobbs for a 32-yard touchdown reception just before the half and then turned out the lights on the Patriots with an 83-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter when he split cornerback Asante Samuel and safety James Sanders to make the grab. Walker then outran the rest of the Patriots secondary to the end zone.
After the game, Samuel talked about the big play to Walker.
"It was over-the-top coverage," he said. "Anyone of us should have made the play. It is not on him (Sanders), but on me too. Either one of us should have made the play."
That has been the problem going back to last year with the defensive backfield: lack of communication and giving up too many big plays in the passing game. After just three games this season, New England has already given up four pass plays of over 30 yards.
"Believe me, we don't have any defenses where it's, 'Well if they run this, we'll give up a 70 or 80 yard touchdown,'" head coach Bill Belichick said. "That's not really the way we design it. We have to coach it better. We have to play it better. You can't give up 80-yard touchdowns every week. That's not good."
What's more alarming is those plays were given up against the Bills, Jets and Broncos. Those teams are ranked 29th, 7th and 26th in passing offense respectively after three weeks. This kind of poor play in the secondary doesn't bode well for a Patriots squad facing a Cincinnati Bengals offense that excels at throwing the football.
Belichick joked that with the way the Patriots are playing on defense, the Bengals are eagerly awaiting their arrival.
"They can throw it short, they can throw it deep, they can run after the catch, they have a good quarterback, a good line, good receivers, good tight ends, running backs," he said. "It's one of the most explosive offensive teams I've seen in a while. It's a huge concern. The one word to describe them is explosive. I'm sure they can't wait to get a hold of us."
Belichick may have been kidding around but so far this season, the Bengals' offense has been no joke. Quarterback Carson Palmer has shown no ill effects from the knee injury he suffered in January. Cincinnati has started the year 3-0, with Palmer throwing for 672 yards, 6 touchdowns, while completing 64.7 percent of his passes.
Overall, the Bengals receivers will probably be the best group the Patriots face all season. Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry are all explosive pass catchers who will test the New England defensive backs. The trio has combined for 32 receptions already in 2006. The Patriots secondary will have to show a lot of improvement by this Sunday or they could be in for a long afternoon trying to cover No. 85 and Co.
"You saw what was out there tonight," Samuel said when asked after the Broncos game if the Patriots secondary would be ready for Cincinnati. "We have a lot to work on. We have to go out and watch the film and practice hard like we know how to do and go out and play Patriots football against an explosive football team."
Hobbs and Samuel need to play one of their best games of the year against the Bengals but they need some help. The Patriots defensive front didn't record a sack against the Broncos. If that's the case this week and Palmer has time to sit in the pocket and look for his receivers, the Pro Bowl quarterback will rip the Patriots defense apart.
Besides tackling better, another thing the secondary needs to do is be more physical. In the past, receivers would fear going over the middle against the Patriots but that hasn't been the case the last two years. Harrison is still coming back from a devastating knee injury himself. However, both he and Eugene Wilson have been invisible for most of the season. Wilson had a down year in 2005 and he's played poorly to start off this year as well. Wilson and Harrison need to set the tone early on defense by knocking the Bengals receivers around and not letting them get comfortable. If the Patriots defense in unable to rattle Palmer and his receivers, expect to see some new Chad Johnson end zone dances this Sunday.
Johnson likes to ask, "Who's covering 85?" If the Patriots are asking themselves that same question during Sunday's game, they're going to need a lot of points in they intend on walking out of Cincinnati with a victory.