New England Evolution: The Patriots Decide to Play Defense

Why a revamped secondary could finally get Belichick and Brady back to the Super Bowl

Tom Brady
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Tom Brady of the New England Patriots during the preseason game against the New York Giants.
By |

"When I suck, I'll retire."

Related: The Backup Plan: Can Shaun Hill Save the St. Louis Rams?

Those were the words of Tom Brady on Tuesday, but perhaps it's not his own sucking he should be worried about. Despite the Patriots' long run of success with Brady and Bill Belichick – 13 seasons together, with eight appearances in the AFC Championship game and three Super Bowl rings – New England had much less concern for their quarterback and offense over the offseason. Brady's going to be alright, but the partner he's been searching for in the nine years since his last championship has finally arrived.

He's not a receiver, a tight end, an offensive lineman or a running back. He's cornerback Darrelle Revis, whom the Patriots signed to do one thing and one thing only: Shut down Peyton Manning. After seeing the Broncos' QB complete 32-of-40 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns in last season's AFC Championship, New England had to take a chance on Revis, even though his short contract may keep him in Boston for less time than Bill Buckner at a book signing.

From 2007 to 2012, Brady skirted the coast of Revis Island when he was on the Jets, and it wasn't always pretty. In Revis' first game against the Patriots, Brady threw for 140 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. In his fourth, Brady completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes, no touchdowns and one interception. There's no question that he's better off with the star corner on his sideline rather than his number one receiver.

When Belichick and Brady last won a Super Bowl in 2004, the defense ranked second in points allowed. A year earlier, when they won their second of those three championships, they ranked first in the same category. However, the defense has been in decline ever since, with the Patriots ranking 25th or lower in yards allowed in each of the last four seasons. Last season, they ranked 18th in passing yards allowed and copped 17 interceptions against 25 touchdowns. However, look closer and you'll notice that the Patriots are ill-equipped to compete against a great passer in the playoffs.

New England faced the Falcons in Week 4 and Matt Ryan passed for 421 yards and two touchdowns. They faced the Saints in Week 6 and Drew Brees had 236 yards and two touchdowns. Cam Newton passed for 209 yards and three touchdowns. Hell, even Jason Campbell had 391 passing yards and three touchdowns against the Patriots last season. All of which foreshadowed New England's 10-point loss to Manning and the Broncos in January that ended their season.

Belichick is now banking on Revis, as well as a number of other moves, to put an end to that embarrassing revolving-door defense. And that, in turn, should make it a lot easier for Brady not to "suck," since he won't have to put up 400 yards and four touchdowns every game. Though he's certainly capable of doing it.

Through eight games last season, Brady had a number of folks hedging their bets that he had reached the "washed up" portion of his historic NFL career. He sported a passer rating of 74.9 with nine touchdowns, six interceptions, 5.94 yards per attempt and 55.7 percent completions at the midway point.

Then he threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns in a 55-31 thrashing of Pittsburgh, and all was right with the world.

Brady completed over 65 percent of his passes over the final eight games with 16 touchdowns, five interceptions and a rating of 99.2; much of which probably had to do with the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski in Week 7. Gronk had 592 yards and four touchdowns in seven games, but he missed the final three games of the regular season and both playoff games. Brady failed to hit 200 yards passing in three of those contests.

That's why it's not just the addition of Revis that makes New England a contender to win the AFC this year, but the return of in-house standouts like Gronk, Danny Amendola (who missed four games last year) and Vince Wilfork (who missed 12). Amendola had three games over 100 yards receiving in his first go with the Patriots, while Wilfork was a Pro Bowl run-stuffer that was sorely missed after tearing his Achilles in Week 4. New England allowed 105 rushing yards per game when Wilfork was in, compared to 143.75 per game when he was out.

And then there's Jerod Mayo, the two-time Pro Bowl linebacker that missed all but six games in 2013 with a torn pectoral muscle. Yeah, he's coming back too.

All of the bad fortune from a year ago overshadows the fact that the Patriots were one win away from their sixth Super Bowl-appearance of the Brady era. Adding Revis, cornerback Brandon Browner, receiver Brandon LaFell and Dominique Easley, the defensive lineman they selected in the first round out of Florida, certainly bodes well for them in 2014.

At the very least it should keep New England and Brady far from sucking, and probably gets them back to the AFC title game (at the least). At the most, it could carry Belichick back to the Lombardi for the first time in almost a decade.

All it took was focusing not on their own Hall of Fame quarterback, but the quarterbacks facing the Patriots' defense. A unit that suddenly looks Hall of Fame-worthy itself.

x