As if opposing teams didn’t already have enough to worry about between the three-headed rushing attack, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and offensive mastermind Josh McDaniels calling plays, they now have yet another obstacle to overcome. That obstacle would be known as the New England Defense. I know what you’re probably thinking, this defense has shown time and time again that they are susceptible to giving up big plays, but hear me out. This defense isn’t just good, they are… ELITE.
Unlike traditional elite defenses like the 2017 Jaguars, 2015 Broncos, 2014 Seahawks, etc., who assert dominance by pure athletic and mental capabilities on the field, New England’s defense wins off the field. I know it sounds cliche, but Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Brian Flores put this team in the best spot to do their job every week and 9 times out of 10, it pays off for them. They don’t have the most athletic all around players, but the Patriots coaching staff tries to put those players in spots where they are less likely to get beat. They are one of the biggest matchup driven teams in the NFL and will rarely put a defender in an un-favorable matchup.
Their main focus week-to-week is to adapt their defense to the team they are playing. They watch countless hours of tape and figure out what each team does best, and how they plan to stop it. This sounds like what every team in the NFL strives to do on a week-to-week basis, but you would be surprised. Teams may add a wrinkle to their defense here or there to try and stop a specific offense, but nothing changes too drastically as they rely on their big-name players to make plays. That is, except for the Patriots. Watching film on them doesn’t really give you any upper hand on that weeks game as they can come out in something new every single week. Bill Belichick knows how important it is to not allow offenses to get comfortable, and they put all their defensive resources into not letting them do so.
So, how exactly do the Patriots do so well on the defensive side of the ball? Well, in the three most important facets of the game, they have been sound. That would be run defense, pass defense, and scoring defense.
“Run defense? You’re kidding, right? This team couldn’t stop a high school running back!”
No, I am actually being serious. The Patriots take away the one thing you like to do most, and most of the time that is passing the football. Anyone could point to the Steelers game and tell me how terrible the Patriots are at stopping the run, but there is one key piece you would be missing. The Steelers, in true Steelers fashion, despite having one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in the game, opt to throw the ball 67% of their plays, which is the highest rate in the league and 8 percentage points higher than the league average 59% pass rate. As a result of this, the Patriots decided to play hard against the pass all game long. No matter how well they ran the football, Belichick knew that at some point Pittsburgh would simply abandon the run game. Abandon it they did, and even through a loss, the Patriots held the high-powered Steelers offense to 17 points in Pittsburgh.
After constantly hearing from my peers that the Patriots can’t stop the run at all, I did some research of my own. Through that, I came to the conclusion that the Patriots run defense is actually good, but solely when they need it to be.
I looked at run vs. pass rates for teams in the first half over the 2018 season. *Note that I only used the first half as a measuring tool because in the second half, teams winning (good teams) usually run the ball at a higher rate to burn clock, and teams losing (bad teams) will throw the ball at a much higher rate. The final results are usually skewed due to this, so the first half is your best look at what an offense is trying to do from a game plan perspective. Of the Patriots 2018 opponents, six of them ran the ball at least 3% higher than the league average of 41%. Here are the Patriots numbers against those teams’ running backs.
Just for reference, most say the Chicago Bears have the #1 defense in football, which is probably true. This figure of 3.8 yards per carry allowed would have the Patriots tied for 4th lowest ypc allowed in the league with the notorious run-stuffing Bears unit.
Every team in the table above runs the ball at a higher rate than the league average of 41%, meaning that those offenses need to establish a run in order to pass the ball and get their offense going. In most cases, the Patriots stop those teams’ rushing attack. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for the Texans game as it was the first week of the season and they were still figuring themselves out. The Patriots play situational football, and they certainly stop the run when they have to.
If you don’t know by now, the Patriots boast one of the league’s best secondaries. Stephon Gilmore has played at an all-pro level all year, Devin McCourty is one of the top safeties in the league as always, Patrick Chung still excels at covering running backs and tight ends, J.C. Jackson is one of the best rookie corners in the game and Jason McCourty has been solid for the Patriots in spurts. It doesn’t seem like it at surface level, but the secondary is absurdly good. If you don’t believe me, I will just list off some end of season stats that prove my point:
- 85.4 overall passer rating allowed to opposing QB’s (7th in NFL)
- 61.6% completion percentage allowed to opposing QB’s (2nd in NFL)
- 28 Takeaways (6th in NFL)
This is all happening while being a top-3 man coverage heavy team in the league. Against arguably the league’s best receiving tandem in Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, they manned up and were not beaten by any means. Those two have averaged 13.4 receptions for 175.6 yards per game throughout the course of the season. Against the Patriots, they caught a combined 8 passes for 89 yards. The second level of the defense is balling out this year, and they deserve more attention for it, though I’m sure they don’t really care.
Year in and year out, this is what the Patriot defense aims for. They will let you amass all the yards you want, but they want to hold you to a low amount of points. Yes, it sounds obvious but it is something that the Patriots do very well with every single year.
I’m sure when you think about this defense and not giving up points, the Chiefs, Jaguars, Bears, Dolphins, and Titans games come to mind. (Those were all games where the Patriots surrendered more than 30 points, by the way.) Those games only make these next few statistics even crazier.
- Opponents score 20.3 points per game (7th lowest in NFL)
- 32.6% of opponents drives lead to a score (4th lowest in NFL)
- 1.75 points allowed per drive (7th lowest in NFL)
- 2 minutes and 28 seconds avg. opponent time per drive (T-1st in NFL)
These stats may seem nonsensical, but they are key for New England. Obviously the points per game being 7th lowest in the league is already great, but if you take their average points per game of 16.2 since week 9, they would be first in the NFL in front of the Chicago Bears’ 16.5 point per game average. For what it’s worth, the Patriots were the #1 scoring defense over the last three weeks. Sure, you can point to the fact that they played the Bills and the Jets 2 of those 3 weeks, but those offenses were better than what you saw against the Patriots. In week 16, the Jets played the Packers and scored 38 points. In week 17, the Bills scored 42 points against the Dolphins. You can say all you want about the legitimacy of those defenses, but it takes a lot more skill than you would think to put up 30+ points on any NFL defense. They weren’t high-powered offenses, but don’t be fooled, the Patriots made those teams look far worse than they actually were.
The stat that only 32.6% of opponents drives lead to a score is huge, because when their offense is clicking, all the Patriots need the defense to do is get a stop here and there. This number clearly shows that they are capable of making more than enough stops to give the offense a good chance to build a lead. In a similar light, teams are averaging the lowest drive time against the Patriots, which as we all know puts the ball back in Tom Brady’s hands. It gives the offense more time to control the clock and score points. The defense is doing it’s main job, giving the ball back to the offense in good situations.
I hear way too often that “the defense isn’t good enough to win a super bowl” or “they don’t stand a chance against these AFC teams in the playoffs”. To those people I say this; Just because they don’t have big names like Khalil Mack or Aaron Donald on their defensive roster, doesn’t mean they can’t get the job done. The Patriots have figured out how to perfectly manipulate a roster to work in their favor. They can put so many different players in so many different spots and will still garner results.
In true Belichick-ian words, the Patriot defenders Do. Their. Job.