Let's all give the Patriots defense a minute to find itself

Published: 9/16/2017 8:19:52 PM
Modified: 11/12/2008 3:10:12 PM
IMG_6696-JPG.jpegPatriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower will miss Sunday's game with a knee injury.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In a week of plot twists that shipped him 3,047 miles from the Great Northwest to Old New England, the Patriots’ new defensive end Cassius Marsh turned up in an even more unpredictable place last Thursday: Covering Chiefs rookie running back Kareem Hunt in the fourth quarter.
On a night when Hunt collected 246 yards and two touchdowns out of the Kansas City backfield, the biggest highlight came on a 78-yard scoring reception in which he drew Marsh in coverage. Largely a special-teams contributor with the Seahawks, Marsh is a 270-pound defensive lineman most adept at rushing the passer when he lines up on defense. Hunt, though hardly a Reggie Bush-type burner, presented a gruesome mismatch that the Chiefs exploited.
It was perhaps the low point in a series of bad matchups and coverage mistakes that ruined the Patriots’ season debut. But it also demonstrated how the Pats struggled to find their bearings after linebacker Dont’a Hightower left the game with a knee injury late in the third quarter. Hunt had 88 yards from scrimmage prior to Hightower’s injury, and 158 yards after. Most of that came on two fourth-quarter plays — the 78-yard touchdown reception and a 58-yard run.
What became clear in Week 1 is that the 2017 Patriots’ defense is still a work progress. Almost certainly more talented than it was a year ago, the unit has yet to demonstrate that it can manage when Hightower is off the field. However, it is far too early to assume that this Patriots defense will never be able to manage when Hightower is off the field.
Sunday’s game against the Saints presents an exceptional challenge on that front. Hightower has been ruled out against New Orleans and its elite quarterback, Drew Brees, which certainly adds to the Pats’ degree of difficulty.  
That said, the Patriots did just fine without Hightower a year ago, going 3-0 and allowing just 27 points in the games he missed (24 of those came against the Dolphins in Week 2). He even missed New England’s only shutout last year, a 27-0 win over the Texans in a Thursday night game in Week 3.
Nonetheless, here we are one entire week into a fresh NFL season, and the Chicken Little Set covering sports in Boston has dialed hysteria up to levels that should involve Kim Jung-Un and red buttons. Marsh, who experienced the chaos of Thursday’s performance first-hand, said the defense is working to resolve its issues, which he indicated are fixable.
“Well, there are some moving pieces, man,” Marsh said. “Guys are playing different positions, different guys out there, you know, brand new to this team and some other guys who are coming in. Some people start better than others, and some people finish better than others. Around here it’s been about finishing.

“We need to get better. That’s what it’s about in this league, continue to improve throughout the season and not be a team that starts high and slowly drifts off.”
While steady, season-long improvement worked for last year’s defense, which allowed the fewest points in the league, some have suggested that the Patriots created a talent deficiency when they traded defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Jamie Collins last season. Though this theory was seemingly disproven when New England won Super Bowl LI, some believe these players would fix perceived coverage issues emanating from the front seven.
This is a ludicrous idea, given the roster ramifications that would ripple out by undoing the Jones and Collins trades. First, the Pats would no longer have starting left guard Joe Thuney and wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, whom the team acquired as a result of the Jones trade. The Collins trade brought them a third-round compensation pick, which they used to acquire Brandin Cooks. So, goodbye Cooks. Now, to keep Jones and Collins, both free agents after last season, the Pats just have to free up a lot of cap space.  
That pair combined to make $22.1 million this year. So we’d have to find that money. The Patriots have about $5 million in free cap space now. Thuney, Mitchell and Cooks combine to make $2.8 million, but replacing those three players with three minimum-wage players costs $1.4 million. So, the savings from those three players ($1.4 million) plus the $5 million currently freed up, gives us $6.4 million. We still need another $15.7 million, so we have to cut more players to get there.
Start with Stephon Gilmore and his $8.6 million cap hit this year. Next, we can remove Mike Gillislee and his roughly $4 million hit. With $3.1 million left to clear, there’s Rex Burkhead making $3.15 million.
So, if the Patriots had kept Jones and Collins, (which theoretically fixes problems), they’d lose Thuney, Mitchell and Cooks. Then they’d have to give up a combination of talent relatively proportional to Gilmore, Gillislee and Burkead. At this point, the cap would be maxed out. So, forget about adding a player as they did last year with Michael Floyd, rolling over cap space or using the extra space to extend anyone’s contract. (This proposed fix also ignores the likelihood that Collins was a bad fit in New England’s defense, hence his rapid departure midway through last season).
Hip-shooting hot-take artists are often likely to ignore the less-obvious solution, and in this case, that solution may exist within the Patriots’ roster. The Pats were without rookie linebacker Harvey Langi last week (concussion), who theoretically would have subbed for Hightower. Langi is expected to play against New Orleans. They also saw limited action from Deatrich Wise, an end who missed most of the preseason with a concussion. After losing Rob Ninkovich to retirement, Chris Long to free agency and third-round draft choice Derek Rivers to an ACL injury, New England traded for Marsh to add to its rotation on the defensive line. Marsh, who had lived on the West Coast his whole life prior to the trade two weeks ago, has barely unpacked his suitcase. When New England had an extra three days off after last week’s game, he was as much getting his life in order as he was learning how to be a Patriot.
“I think I’m finally you know settling in and these last couple of days getting my mind right, my life right, off the field,” Marsh said. “It was very important, so I can come in here and put my all into it. Not that I wasn’t before, just not moving across country, not doing all those things, I feel much more settled, feel more comfortable with the team.”
Comfort, at least in terms of new players absorbing and executing this defense, is going to be vital moving forward. In all likelihood, the Patriots will be a better team if and when they reach that point.
Dave Brown is a freelance correspondent who covers the Patriots for the Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter @ThatDaveBrown.

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