With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots. We’ve looked at the offense. Now, we flip things around to the defensive side of the ball — we opened with the defensive line, and then focused on the linebackers. Up next, the defensive backs.
Overview: The Patriots secondary has become a lightning rod for criticism over the first eight games. Whether it’s the number of big pass plays allowed (New England has yielded 42 pass plays of 20 yards or more), the fact that the Patriots seem to find new ways each week to give up more and more passing yardage (four quarterbacks have topped 300 passing yards against New England, and five of them had season-highs in passing yards when facing the Patriots), or apparent recurring problems with technique and coaching style, there’s no shortage of issues with the defensive backs. My ‘NFL Sunday’ co-host Matt Chatham does make a compelling argument: Because of injuries to safeties Pat Chung  and Steve Gregory , the Patriots have had a distinct lack of continuity at defensive back. That, combined with the relative youth at the position, can be a recipe for trouble. There’s also the feeling that the Patriots aren’t playing the sort of team defense needed — particularly when it comes to the pass rush — to help out the group of young defensive backs. Regardless, while things appear to be trending gradually in the right direction, it will be interesting to see how the group finishes the season, particularly with the addition of cornerback Aqib Talib .
(One thing that should give New England fans some optimism is that the Patriots pass defense had many of these same issues last year. Coming out of the bye, they were able to do a good job finding a way to minimize the problems in the secondary, and eventually figured out a way to get to the Super Bowl . Given New England’s historical ability to self-correct and diagnose problems coming out of the bye week, that could be a good sign for the Patriots pass defense, and the secondary in particular.)
Depth chart (stats based on coaches’ film): CB/S Devin McCourty  (34 solo tackles, two interceptions, nine passes defensed), S Tavon Wilson (24 solo tackles, three interceptions, five passes defensed), Chung (19 solo tackles, two passes defensed), CB Kyle Arrington  (24 solo tackles, three passes defensed), Gregory (11 solo tackles), one interception, one pass defensed), CB Sterling Moore (11 solo tackles), one pass defensed), CB Alfonzo Dennard (10 solo tackles, two interceptions, three passes defensed), CB Ras-I Dowling, CB Marquice Cole, S Nate Ebner, CB Malcolm Williams.
Best moment: Keep moving — nothing to see here.
Worst moment: Likely the late pass play from Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson to Sidney Rice  that went for 46 yards and turned out to be the game-winner for the Seahawks . On that play. Rice was able to get behind rookie safeties Wilson and Ebner and come away with the catch. In a year when the Patriots secondary continues to yield big plays, that was perhaps the biggest and most costly breakdown.
By the numbers: As bad as New England’s pass defense has been over the first eight games, the Patriots actually are allowing fewer passing yards per game this season than they did last year. Through the first eight games of 2011, the Patriots allowed an average of 314 passing yards per game. In the same stretch this season, they have yielded an average of 281 passing yards per game. In addition, while the Patriots have one fewer interception through the first eight games of the 2012 season than the first eight games last year (nine picks instead of 10) they have 11 more passes defensed (38, as opposed to 27) than the first eight contests of 2011.)
Money quote: ‘There are some technique things that we can improve on. A lot of times, it’s different with different guys. Maybe one guy is struggling with something and another guy is struggling with something else. Maybe there are some things that we can do structurally to help that. Those are all things that we take into consideration every week going into the game. Those guys are working on the individual things that they can do to get better. Again, being younger, a lot of the experience those guys get, it helps them. They understand things a little bit better, they see the game a little bit better, they understand the film study a little bit better. Those things will help them improve as we move forward.’ — Cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer on overlapping technique changes the team can make to the defensive backs to improve things down the stretch