FOXBORO -- The only people not bursting at the seams around Foxboro when it comes to talking about Darrelle Revis are the coaches.
The closest thing to hyperbole offered by Bill Belichick on Thursday was the fact that he was “impressed” with what Revis has shown to this stage in his New England career.
“He’s worked hard; smart guy,” Belichick said. “Very professional. Has a good understanding of the game, he’s a smart player and he’s had a real good focus and instinct. He’s a smart player scheme-wise but he knows how to play. He’s a very instinctive player.
“He played well at Tampa, he played well at the Jets, and then we saw him in the Pro Bowl. Now we’ve seen him ourselves for 13 practices and the time in the spring. But again, it’s a new year, he’s in a new system so we’ll see how it all plays out -- but I’m glad we have him on our team. I look forward to working with him more.”
To be fair, Belichick used the same sort of language when talking about Randy Moss, Corey Dillon and Wes Welker when they were first acquired. But in truth, Revis has the potential to be much more than just impressive. When you’re talking about the best secondaries of the Belichick era in New England, he could be the difference that puts the 2014 edition at the top of the list.
Since Belichick arrived prior to the start of the 2000 season, there have been three secondaries that have distinguished themselves as elite: 2001, 2003 and 2004. Trying to contrast and compare them can be a challenge, as it’s impossible to pick out individual stats that are secondary-specific, especially without game context. But we can examine the overall pass defense numbers over the course of the whole season to help get some sort of idea as to just how good they were. Here’s a quick look at each one of those defenses, and what the 2014 edition has to do to reach the top.
2001: That team had Ty Law (three interceptions) and Otis Smith (five interceptions) as starting corners, while Lawyer Milloy and Tebucky Jones were at safety. In addition, Terrell Buckley was an extra corner who provided depth. Their resume is impressive for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that they were able to silence the high-flying St. Louis offense in Super Bowl XXXVI. The sight of them routinely crushing Rams’ receivers helped provide some of the most indelible images from that game, and Law’s interception of Kurt Warner and subsequent touchdown became an enduring symbol of the strength of the New England secondary.
But when compared with the rest of the league over the course of a full 16-game season, the New England secondary was slightly better than average. Overall, the Patriots gave up an average of 218.6 passing yards per game over the course of the year, 24th in the NFL. The Patriots allowed 50 plays of 20-plus yards (sixth-worst in the NFL), and eight plays of 40 yards or more, (12th in the league). The one thing that does stand out is the fact that New England held teams to a league-low 54.8 completion percentage. (For what it’s worth -- perhaps a nod to their “bend-but-don’t-break” ways -- they were also sixth-best when it came to touchdown passes allowed, giving up 15.)
Ultimately, this was a secondary that really played well when it counted. Six of their last eight games -- including the postseason -- they held quarterbacks to 250 yards or less. (The only two to top 250 were Kurt Warner in the Super Bowl and Jay Fiedler in the regular-season finale.) They allowed two touchdown passes in three postseason games, and came away with five playoff interceptions.
2003: The acknowledged leaders, if you are talking about a group that dominated from start to finish: Ty Law and Tyrone Poole started at cornerback (six interceptions each), while Rodney Harrison and rookie Eugene Wilson got the bulk of the reps at safety. In addition, it was the first year for Asante Samuel, and while Wilson got the bulk of the attention for what turned out to be an excellent rookie year, Samuel would go on to an impressive career. Accordingly, the pass defense stats were overwhelming:
-- Allowed 11 touchdown passes and finished 29 interceptions (both good for best in the league).
-- Allowed 4.9 net yards gained per pass attempt (tied for the best in the league with the Ravens).
-- Allowed a completion percentage of 53.1 (second in the league).
-- Allowed 37 plays of 20 yards or more (eighth in the league) and 5 plays of 40 yards or more (tied for fifth).
-- Allowed an average of 202 passing yards per game (15th in the league).
In addition, they limited seven quarterbacks to less than 200 yards passing, and only two quarterbacks passed for at least 300 yards against them over the course of the season -- Kerry Collins of the Giants and Steve McNair of the Titans. To put that in some perspective, the 2011 Patriots allowed eight different quarterbacks to break the 300-yard passing barrier. (Strangely, no team had more passes attempted against them in 2003 than the Patriots -- 618 -- but that could be a byproduct of them consistently playing with a lead and teams trying to throw their way back into the game.)
Like the 2001 team, however, the 2003 secondary really picked up its game in the playoffs, when the Patriots thoroughly dominated co-MVPs McNair and Peyton Manning, holding them to a single touchdown pass each while coming away with five picks in the first two postseason games. Things went off the rails in the Super Bowl when Jake Delhomme delivered one of the best second-half performances of the year against the Patriots, but in the end, it was still more than enough to allow New England to win a title.
2004: The following year, the secondary had many of the same elements, with Law and Poole starting the season at corner and Harrison (two interceptions) and Wilson (a team-high four picks) opening the year at safety. However, injuries really hit the cornerback position hard that season. Law was limited to seven games that year, while health issues also held Poole to just five games and Samuel was also in and out of the lineup because of injury.. In their place, the Patriots ran a series of corners through the system, including Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland. They also wrung a few games out of wide receiver Troy Brown as an extra defensive back.
As a result, the totals were a little like the 2003 team in that they slightly better than average. The two numbers that really stand out are 20 interceptions (seventh in the league) and 18 passing touchdowns allowed (tied for seventh in the league). They yielded 3,400 passing yards, an average of 212.5 yards per game (16th in the NFL). Four quarterbacks topped 300 passing yards in the year, including Donovan McNabb’s 324 yards in Super Bowl XXXIX. (Remarkably, they also held seven teams to 200 yards passing or less, and two -- Buffalo’s Drew Bledsoe and Baltimore’s Kyle Boller -- failed to top 100 yards passing.)
When it comes to the 2014 secondary, it has a steep hill to climb if it wants to top the 2003 bunch, which played a major role in helping the Patriots win a second title in three seasons. Of course, the game has changed dramatically over the last decade when it comes to pass defense, and the hand-checking and bumping at the line that wasn’t necessarily an issue in 2003 can be problematic these days. But as training camp begins, it’s easy to make a comparison between Law and Revis -- two Aliquippa products who became the best in the game at what they do. Poole was a well-traveled vet who was 31 when he showed up in New England prior to the start of the 2003 season, while the 29-year-old Browner also has some mileage on him, but has also shown a nice ability to play a complementary role to a lead corner.
At safety, he’s not in Harrison’s neighborhood, but like Rodney, Devin McCourty is the acknowledged leader of the secondary, the one the rest of the defensive backs defer to. The one position in the secondary that remains a question mark is strong safety -- last year’s starter Steve Gregory was released in the offseason. While the Patriots do have a few in-house candidates who have shown some proficiency at the spot in the past, at least right now, it projects as the weak link.
Ultimately, the biggest thing that separates this year’s model from the last few seasons is that the 2015 edition appears to be much deeper. Alpha dog Aqib Talib went down in back-to-back AFC title games, forcing New England to turn to its bench in hopes of being able to stem the tide. On both occasions, the lack of depth at cornerback was exposed. With the acquisitions of Revis and Browner, that doesn’t figure to be a problem this year -- right now, Alfonzo Dennard projects as the primary backup, while Kyle Arrington is the No. 1 option in the slot and Logan Ryan will help as needed.
In the end, it’s clear the Patriots utilized a familiar team-building style this past offseason, approaching the cornerback position like they did the wide receiver spot between the 2006 and 2007 seasons. That time around, they acquired Randy Moss and Wes Welker. It helped revolutionize their passing game and sparked them to new offensive heights. If the pickups of Revis and Browner are half as impactful on the defensive side of the ball, it’ll be much easier for Belichick to throw some praise toward the new defensive backs by the time the end of the season rolls around.