Patriots

Floundering Patriots defense needs Dont’a Hightower to take charge

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(Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports)

The Patriots defense, as we are all well aware of at this point, has been wretched through the first three games of the season.

I mean, when Aaron Schatz of FootballOutsiders.com (a big Patriots fan) writes something that includes the words, "There's no way New England can be a Super Bowl contender if its defense continues playing this poorly," then you know things are bad.

Even with what we've seen in years past, when slow starts and soft coverages are the norms for the Patriots in the early stages of seemingly every season, this is something altogether different. For the Patriots to be last in the league in yards and points (31.7), something's not right.

We're used to the yards. The Patriots trademarked the bend in "bend-but-don't-break defense" way before they stamped Blitz For Six as their own. Bill Belichick would trade an 80-yard drive for a field goal every single time. We've gotten used it and rationalized it because the Patriots were always in the top half of the league in scoring defense. "Suckers. You think yards or third-down conversions matter? Pfft. Points baby. They don't declare winners by total yardage; it's points." 

And, by the end of the season, the Patriots usually prove the critics wrong. I learned my lesson in 2011 when Belichick took basically an Island of Misfit defensive players (Julian Edelman covered Anquan Boldin in the AFC Championship Game for crying out loud) and nearly won a Super Bowl. That collection of stink allowed 26.3 points in the first three games, and by the end of the season they were 31st in yards (bend) but 15th in scoring at 21.4 (don't break).

There is little doubt in my mind this defense is twice as good as the '11 version. Yes, they're thin, the linebackers leave something to be desired and the pass rush is middling. But Alan Branch (whenever he decides to play), Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy are a very good interior group. Trey Flowers is almost a star, and the essential players in the secondary are playing their third season together and added The Thirteen Million Dollar Man in Stephon Gilmore from the Bills.

But if there's one thing missing, one thing that can pull the unit together and turn the defense from downtrodden to formidable — like they should be — it's No. 54.