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Patriots won't go very far with highly suspect defense

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Bill Belichick might be a football genius, but he doesn't have a solution for the Pats' defense. (Getty Images)  
Bill Belichick might be a football genius, but he doesn't have a solution for the Pats' defense. (Getty Images)  

If the New England Patriots aren't worried now, they should be. Their defense stinks.

Nowhere was that more apparent than Sunday in a 25-17 loss to Pittsburgh, where the Steelers held the ball for nearly 40 minutes, converted 63 percent of their third downs and had five drives of 10 or more plays.

That game demonstrated that Pittsburgh can do the improbable, which is to overcome Tom Brady, but it might have told us more -- namely, that New England doesn't have what it takes to go the distance.

Yeah, I know, I never count out Bill Belichick, either, but after watching Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers poke more holes in the league's worst pass defense, I don't see how New England makes a Super Bowl run.

I mean, tell me the last time the NFL's 32nd-ranked defense made it to the Super Bowl. It hasn't happened. The worst Super Bowl defense was the 2009 New Orleans Saints, and they checked in at 25th.

OK, so Indianapolis had the league's worst run defense when it won Super Bowl XLI, but it was 21st overall. Still, that's not how you would like to draw up things, except the Colts ... like New England ... can be excused because of their quarterback. They had Peyton Manning. The Patriots have Brady. Both score a lot of points and score them in bunches.

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But not when opponents like Pittsburgh grind out the clock, they don't. The Steelers produced 29 first downs and were so productive that Brady was on the field for three snaps in the first quarter. That happens when your defense can't stop anyone, and the Patriots can't.

Why else do you think Belichick tried an onside kick in the last 2:35? He had all his timeouts. He trailed by six points. And he had Brady. Yet he still tried the onside rather than try to stuff Roethlisberger and Co. inside their 30.

The reason: Belichick knows what he has on defense, and he doesn't trust it. He didn't think he would see the ball again, so he gambled on the onside.

And he lost.

"That game," said one NFL coach, "was one of the most significant of the season because usually the Steelers do what they always do, and they've been successful doing it. You know what you're going to get from them because it's what they always do. Only here they did what they had to do, and that's a huge, huge, huge departure.

"They took what the Patriots gave them. When it was second-and-11, instead of looking for Mike Wallace deep, they took the underneath routes and wound up third-and-3. Then they found someone like Heath Miller on a linebacker and kept the chains moving. Roethlisberger was very selfless. If you listen to him afterward, he says, 'We took what they gave us,' and that's exactly right. They out-Patrioted the Patriots."

But that happens when your defense can't make critical stops, and New England's can't. Not only does it rank last in yards and last in pass defense, it allows 6.41 yards per play. Compare that with recent Super Bowl participants, and you'll understand why the Patriots should be concerned.

Look at the past seven Super Bowls, for example, and you'll find no defense allowing more than 5.5 yards per play. In fact, of the 14 clubs that participated, seven -- or half -- allowed fewer than 5 yards per play, with the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers (3.9) the best. Another three allowed 5 yards even.

That means only four exceeded 5 yards per play, which should make Patriots' fans nervous.

Of course, the Patriots aren't concerned about yards. They're more interested in locking opponents out of the end zone, but their red-zone record isn't all that dazzling, either. They're tied for 16th with Arizona, which puts them squarely in the middle of the pack, and if that's your defensive wild card, I suggest you're in trouble.

Of course, the Patriots are about victories, too, and they do what they can to accumulate them. Usually, that means having Brady throw for a gazillion yards, but he can't if he's not on the field for more than 20 minutes. That was the length of his performance Sunday, and he still managed 17 points -- though Roethlisberger set up the first TD with an interception.

"The Patriots tried going to a 4-3 this year and playing man-to-man," said our coach, "but it was a disaster. Now they're back to mixing the 4-3 and 3-4 and playing a lot of zone, but they're giving up a lot of big plays. I think they're trying to find out about themselves, and I'm not sure they really know what they have."

Well, I do. They have a defense that leaks like the Titanic, and if they can't fix it, they're toast. Brady is the game's best quarterback, but he can't work miracles. The poor guy is asked to produce 30 or more points each week, and when he doesn't, you see what happens.

That's why Sunday's game was notable. Pittsburgh scored a psychological victory by overcoming Brady and the Patriots, but the Steelers accomplished more than that. They might have demonstrated that New England's defense is so vulnerable -- no, so dreadful -- that another Super Bowl run is virtually impossible.

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