On Sunday night, hours after the Patriots allowed another 250-plus yard passing performance from a quarterback (the 11th time this season an opposing quarterback threw for at least 250 yards on New England), former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison called out the New England secondary.
“(The Patriots) won a football game, but they should be concerned because that secondary is probably the worst secondary I’ve seen in the last decade,” Harrison said in the wake of New England’s victory over Washington. “It’s been proven the last two years in the playoffs -- if (quarterback Tom) Brady’s off just a little bit, they’re vulnerable to lose.”
The statements hit a nerve with Vince Wilfork. A former teammate of Harrison’s, the defensive lineman fired back on Monday. Speaking on WEEI, he made it clear he would love nothing more than to call the author of the comment.
“I want to. I want to do it all the time and tell them to shut the ‘f’ up. But everybody has a job to do,” said Wilfork. “You have to respect their job. People have opinions. It’s just an opinion. If that’s how they feel, that’s how they feel. The only thing we can control is this locker room.
“A lot of things they say have some truth to it,” he acknowledged. “Yeah, we’re pretty bad giving up yardage and everything, but guess what? We find ways to win. Good football teams find a way to win. ... We ignore the noise. We just have to keep a level head and control what we can control, and that’s on the field.”
Wilfork’s point aside, we went deep inside the numbers to challenge Harrison’s statement that this is the worst secondary he’s seen in the last decade. Here are a few of the more noteworthy numbers.
•With three games still left, the Patriots have already allowed 68 plays of 20+ yards, 12 more such plays than they'd ever allowed in their history.
•When it comes to projected yards, if they stay at their current pace, they will allow 4,939 yards, or 803 more than last year and 1,200 more than their third-most yards allowed (3,703 in 2005) in the decade. That number would shatter the previous NFL record of 4,541 passing yards allowed by the 1995 Falcons. Obviously, it would also beat out last season in terms of most passing yards allowed in the history of the franchise.
•Opponents are attempting more passes (and completing more passes) than ever against the Patriots. In the last 10 years, teams attempted an average of 33.71 passes per game. This season, teams attempt 39.8 passes per game, a difference of six passes (which at times could equal an entire drive) a game.
With the understanding that the 2011 season is still incomplete -- and using Harrison’s statement as a template -- here’s our list of the four worst New England secondaries of the previous decade:
4. The 2002 secondary: It came down to either the 2006 secondary or the 2002 group for the fourth spot, and these guys just made it, based on their late season struggles. This season was the end of the road for the guys who helped Bill Belichick and the Patriots dominate the Super Bowl the year before. There were plenty of positives, but it was clear that it was time to turn the page on most of these defensive backs. Ty Law was still playing at a high level, but time was up for veterans like cornerbacks Otis Smith and Terrell Buckley, and safeties Tebucky Jones and Victor Green. It was also the final season for Lawyer Milloy, who was cut days prior to the start of the 2003 season. With the exception of Law, the Patriots would have an almost completely new secondary in 2003, with Harrison stepping in for Milloy and rookies Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson bringing young energy to the spot.
By the numbers: No real ugly numbers stand out here -- the real problem with the defense was an inability to stop the run -- but as a group, the defensive backss were unable to put together consistent performances, especially down the stretch as the Patriots were angling for a postseason spot they would ultimately fail to secure.
The result: The defending Super Bowl champions missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
3. The 2010 secondary: Prior to this season, you could make a case that this group was one of the worst of the last decade, with the saving grace being that they forced turnovers at an unbelievable rate. They had 25 picks (second only to the 2003 group, which had 29 interceptions as a group), with Devin McCourty leading the way with seven. In addition to the work of McCourty, Kyle Arrington came on strong toward the end of the season, and James Sanders provided steady and consistent play at safety. But this was a group that lost Leigh Bodden before the start of the season and had to deal with the wayward Brandon Meriweather, as well as Darius Butler, who struggled for much of the season.
By the numbers: Two numbers that really stand out about this unit: McCourty’s seven picks, which was second behind Hall of Famer Mike Haynes for interceptions by a rookie. And the fact that the team allowed 4,136 passing yards, most by any New England secondary over the last 10 years.
The result: The 2010 team went 14-2 in the regular season but, after a first-round bye, was bounced by the Jets in the divisional round of the playoffs.
2. The 2008 secondary: A year of transition for the secondary, as Asante Samuel departed for Philadelphia the previous offseason, while Harrison would only play six games because of injury, his final season in the NFL. (Brandon Meriweather would see time on a regular basis that season at safety, his first real opportunity in the league.) Ellis Hobbs was a quality slot or nickel corner, but was pushed up the depth chart to be an every down starter, while veteran Deltha O’Neal was pretty much an abject failure at the other corner position. There was some promising young talent in James Sanders (who stepped forward nicely at safety), as well as rookie corners Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley (both of whom would look impressive at times down the stretch), but it never really seemed to come together. The 11-5 Patriots missed the playoffs.
By the numbers: The numbers weren’t particularly awful in one area when compared to the secondaries of the last 10 seasons, but instead, they were pretty mediocre to poor across the board. In the last decade, they were the worst New England secondary when it came to yielding touchdown passes (27) and passer rating (89.0), and prior to last season, they were the only group that allowed an opposing quarterback to complete more than 60 percent of his passes, yielding more than 3,000 yards passing and permitting opposing quarterbacks to average more than seven yards per pass.
The result: The Patriots went 11-5 but missed the playoffs.
1. The 2005 secondary: Across the board, this was likely the worst secondary under Belichick. To be fair, it was a time of transition in New England -- Law departed for the Jets following the 2004 season, while Asante Samuel was in his first full year as a starter, and wasn’t yet the polished product he would grow to be within the next year or so. On the other side was another young corner in Ellis Hobbs. Backing them up was veteran Duane Starks, who was a mess from the jump. Making matters worse was the fact that safety Rodney Harrison only played three games because of injury, leaving an unprepared Eugene Wilson and journeyman Artrell Hawkins to take the majority of reps at safety.
By the numbers: Before last season, no New England secondary allowed more passing yards (3,703) and passing yards per game (231.4) than the 2005 group. In addition, not counting this season, no secondary has had fewer picks (10) and allowed more pass plays of 20 yards or more (56) or 40 yards or more (14) than the 2005 group.
The result: The team finished 10-6 and, after beating the Jaguars in the wild card round, lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Broncos, who passed for 341 yards in the contest.