The Patriots' defensive meltdown vs. Ben Roethlisberger was hardly an aberration. New England continues to rank last against the pass and has yielded an average of 34 yards per game more than any other team.
The issue here isn't that Bill Belichick has lost his touch as a defensive coach, because his work in mitigating the damage by winning battles in the red zones has made the problem a manageable one, when combined with Tom Brady and his explosive offense. Instead, the issue is that Belichick the Personnel Man is striking out, big-time, in trying to fix the corner and safety positions.
Since 2005, the Patriots have spent seven picks in the first four rounds of the draft on defensive backs. Five of those picks came in the past four drafts, and four of those five were first- or second-rounders. Just two of the aforementioned seven -- Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung -- are now on the active roster. On top of that, the club made significant investments the past two years in free agents Shawn Springs (three years, $10.5 million) and Leigh Bodden (started on one-year deal in 2009; re-signed for four years, $22 million).
Despite having allocated all those resources, as one interested party pointed out to me at Heinz Field, what's left in the secondary, outside of McCourty and Chung, is decidedly scrap heap, following the ouster of Bodden and the shutting down of injury-prone rookie Ras-I Dowling. Check it out:
Phillip Adams: Waived by 49ers in September, signed by Patriots after 18 days of unemployment.
Kyle Arrington: Waived by Eagles in September 2009, landed on Patriots' practice squad, promoted to New England's active roster that November.
Josh Barrett: Claimed off waivers from Broncos in August 2010.
James Ihedigbo: Signed by Patriots on August 18 after Jets let him go as a free agent.
Antwaun Molden: Claimed off waivers from Texans by Patriots in August.
Ross Ventrone: Signed by Patriots as rookie free agent in 2010, frequently on and off the roster since.
The lack of an edge-rushing presence is also part of the problem, and the investment hasn't been as heavy in that area. The Patriots took Shawn Crable with the 78th pick in 2008, and he barely played a snap for them, and spent the 53rd pick in 2010 on Jermaine Cunningham, who was a healthy scratch Sunday. To make up for the lack of young talent there, the team has brought in veteran castoffs.
Brady and Belichick worked around this sizeable hole to go 14-2 last year. And at 5-2 now, it's not exactly killing the Patriots. But among the real contenders, it's as glaring a problem as anyone has.