Making the Grade: How did the defense fare?

Has the man in the hoodie lost his mojo?

The “Defensive Genius” has done little to earn that title the past few years, but 2011 may have been the worst yet.

It’s hard to believe that a decade ago the Patriots defense was ripe with talent. Guys like Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi led some ferociously tough and productive units to three Super Bowl titles.

Today, Sterling Moore, Mark Anderson and Dane Fletcher brought the Patriots to the top seed despite surrendering the second most yards per game.

While New England fielded a horrid pass defense, it managed to finish 15th in points allowed (21.4).

Considering the injuries and overall lack of talent, the defense tends to take too much flak but certainly doesn’t inspire confidence when it comes to a Super Bowl run.

Let’s take a look at the positional grades for this season.

Defensive tackles: B

Despite the switch to a 4-3 defense, Vince Wilfork maintained his excellent level of play, earning his third consecutive Pro Bowl selection. Big Vince played 88 percent of the defensive snaps – the highest mark of his career – and came up with some spectacular plays including two incredible interceptions. The team’s first round pick in ’04 registered career highs in sacks (3.5) and assisted tackles (23) while forcing a fumble and recovering two.

Writing more than a sentence about Albert Haynesworth would suggest he actually made contributions to the team. The former $100-million man failed to do much of anything in New England besides miss practice and get blocked. His replacement, Kyle Love, took over full time and finished with 33 tackles and three sacks. His effort and ability to play with leverage made him a solid complement next to Wilfork.

The Pats lost two key guys early on when Myron Pryor and Mike Wright were placed on IR. They would have thrived as interior pass rushers in the new scheme, but were unable to stay healthy.

Defensive ends: B+

It’s a shame Andre Carter went down with a season-ending injury so close to the playoffs. The man simply carried the defense on his back for most of the year. The 11-year veteran received a ton of credit for his 10 sacks, but he was equally dominant at setting the edge in the run game. The Pats managed to win out despite his loss, but in the playoffs he will be sorely missed.

Despite being a situational player, former Defensive Rookie of the Year Mark Anderson revived his career in New England, tying Carter for the team lead in sacks. Anderson isn’t nearly the run defender that Carter was, but uses his quickness and speed to beat offensive tackles around the edge. He and Carter didn’t receive a lot of hype when they were signed, but proved to be invaluable to establishing the pass rush.

Disappointingly, the Patriots received nothing from 2010 second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham. The former Gator had a decent rookie season at outside linebacker, but barely saw the field before being placed on IR. Fellow sophomore Brandon Deadrick however played well after coming off the PUP list and has earned a starting spot now that Carter is gone.

Linebackers: B-

Health was a big issue for this group. Starters Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes both missed time with MCL injuries, and Dane Fletcher took a while to recover from a thumb injury. However, all three enter the playoffs healthy and will be counted on for their individual roles.

Mayo failed to register 100 tackles for the first time in his career, but finally made the big plays that evaded him during his first three years. The 2010 All-Pro finished with a team-leading 95 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, two picks and four tackles for loss and earned a big contract extension.

Before injuring his knee, Spikes was on his way to a big season as one of the better run defenders in the league. The former collegiate All-American registered 44 tackles in the first seven games but missed most of November and all of Decemeber before returning against Buffalo. Between his suspension and injury, Spikes has been limited to 20 of 32 games in his career, but should be an asset going forward as a two-down linebacker.

In my mind, one of the season’s unsung heroes is Rob Ninkovich. He doesn’t always make it look pretty, but the former sixth-round pick makes plays. Ninkovich has a little Mike Vrabel to his game and finished the season with an impressive 74 tackles, 6.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions. His versatility is his best asset and Belichick knows how to use it.

Cornerbacks: C-

This is by far the most disappointing group on the team. If not for Kyle Arrington’s seven picks, they might earn a failing grade. The season was a far cry from what people expected when the Pats preseason depth chart featured Devin McCourty and Leigh Bodden as the starters with Arrington and second-rounder Ras-I Dowling as the backups. Sixteen games later, only Arrington plays corner. Bodden was released due to injury and performance, Dowling landed on IR and McCourty played so poorly at corner that he was moved to safety in the season finale. Throughout the year, the Pats have thrown guys like Antwaun Molden, Nate Jones, Sterling Moore and Julian Edelman at corner. While Edelman and Moore have performed admirably, it speaks volumes that an undrafted free agent and a backup receiver have to play significant snaps on a playoff team. Belichick has failed to replace Asante Samuel since his departure in 2008, wasting high picks on Terrence Wheatley and Darius Butler, but this year was truly embarrassing.

Safeties: D

The corners take a lot of the blame, but in my opinion the safety play was actually worse. Pat Chung played in only eight games, but was very good when healthy. The team’s top pick in 2009 averaged almost eight tackles a game, but didn’t come up with impact plays.

Beyond Chung, the rest of the safeties were terrible. James Ihedigbo showed why the Jets felt he wasn’t needed. Despite finishing with 69 tackles, he registered a big fat zero in the big play categories and took poor angles in coverage. Sergio Brown also showed why he should strictly play special teams with terrible coverage and tackling technique reminiscent of Brandon Meriweather. The Pats desperately need stability next to Chung, but that will probably have to come through the draft.