"They couldn't stop a nose bleed!" - Bart Scott (01/16/2011)
Let that sink in for a while...
Like it or not...hate the man or not...Bart Scott is right. That single comment from Scott should be printed and placed at the top of the Patriots draft board come April, that's for sure. Recent playoff losses have seared this fact into the brain like never before. Like all teams in the NFL, the Patriots have needs with the 2011 NFL Draft upcoming. With that in mind, it will be up to the Patriots brain trust to prioritise these needs and make decisions with the short and long term interests of the club at heart. What cannot be denied is that the Patriots have obvious needs on the defensive side of the ball. Throughout the season, we as fans have all discussed the various shortcomings of this particular defense, as well as its qualities. Over a series of posts, I will look at just how much of a need these areas actually are. I think we can all agree that, at least for the 2011 season (as far as we know) the Inside Linebacker and Safety spots appear pretty well stocked. The same cannot perhaps be said for the Defensive Line, Outside Linebacker and even Corner Back. Since battles are often won and lost in the trenches, it is here where I will begin my analysis...
It has been said frequently amongst ourselves, but just how big of a need is a defensive line stud to play DE in the Patriots system? Well, before I just give you an answer, let's look at a few significant statistics when it comes to the Defensive Line of the 2010 New England Patriots. When analysing this data, I of course include stats based on both 3 and 4 man lines as the Patriots are in sub defensive packages more than 50% of the time. Over the course of the season, it's fair to say the Patriots D-Line had to cope with significant change. Ty Warren went down with a season ending injury, Ron Brace continually failed physicals and although he eventually had a decent season, ended up on IR along with Mike Wright. Despite the various changes, on face value the D-Line held up quite well against the run, conceding a respectable 108 yards per game, good for 11th in the league.
However, more in-depth analysis reveals something quite different. Using the DVOA system at football outsiders, the Patriots finished the season ranked 25th in the league in run defense, surrendering a 4.25 adjusted average per carry. I looked into the stats and it's actually a little bit worse than this! A staple of most Patriots games this season has been the ability of the offense to race out into early leads, thereby rendering opponents game plans mute. Therefore, I looked at the rushing stats of games where the score was still close in the 3rd quarter, allowing opponents to remain balanced with a rushing attack. In these games, the Patriot run defense surrendered 123 YPG, producing a 4.3 AYPC. So, in close games the Patriot defense was giving up significant amounts of yards on the ground.
Where are we giving up the most ground?
In looking at where on the line the Patriots give up ground, the stats become somewhat painful. According to Football Outsiders, when teams run at our Nose Tackle, the Patriots rank 18th in the league. This, in part, is due to the fact Vince Wilfork has been moved around the Line and has not always played NT. Looking at the Defensive End positions in the 3 man line, it gets even worse. When running at our LDE, the Patriots are ranked 20th in the league. When running at RDE, the Patriots are ranked 32nd in the league. That's right...32nd!! Only the NT position surrendered an average of less than 4 YPC and that was 3.98YPC. When teams tried to run the ball around End against either the 4 man line or against our OLB's, the Patriots rank 19th at ROLB/RE, but a more respectable 14th (3.90 YPC) at LOLB/LE.
An analysis of this data suggests first of all that Jermaine Cunningham has had a significant role stopping the run in just his first year, holding down the DE/LOLB spot and setting an effective edge. However, when it comes to those big linemen...those statistics are simply not good enough at all. With Ty Warren hopefully back to form next year, we should have an effective left side of the line to stop the run. However, it's a different story altogether when it comes to the right side.
More pressure! More Pressure!
A further criticism of the Patriot defense is the amount of sacks and pressure they produce, and I'll get to that soon enough. However, something that can be considered as good as a sack in many circumstances in the run stuff (RB tackled at the line of scrimmage) or tackle for loss. According to football outsiders, the Patriots were ranked 25th in the league, achieving a run stuff or TFL only 17% of the time. It's worth noting the vaunted Packer Defense, which suffered similar D-Line instability as the Patriots, was ranked 28th in the league in this area.
Another obvious aspect of defensive line play is the sack count. For the purposes of this analysis, I haven't considered the sack totals of the hybrid OLB/DE players who play on the line in sub packages. The patriot defensive line measures up comparatively well to other well renowned ‘sacking' teams. The patriots D-Line produced 14.5 sacks this season (40% of the teams total sack count) compared to Green Bay's 18 D-Line sacks (38% of their team sack count). Considering the Patriots lost their best interior pass rusher (Mike Wright) in November, the D-Line seems to be holding up its end of the bargain from a pass rushing perspective.
What does all this mean for the defensive line?
Well, it confirms our convictions that the line play has not been solid enough, but perhaps this sheds some light as to just how bad it has been, particularly against the run. Clearly, a priority this offseason will and SHOULD BE to bring in a quality defensive lineman that can play DE in the 3 man line first and foremost. It is vital that we finad someone stout against the run, strong enough to take on double teams and help force those ‘stuffs,' TFL's and sacks. Furthermore, they should be athletic enough to stay on the field and contribute significantly to the sub packages in a pass rushing role, although as I have shown, the big men we already have are doing a decent job in that regard.
Look for the Patriots to draft one of the bigger bodied D-Linemen with one of their first 3 picks in this draft i.e. 6'3 - 6'6, 300+lbs and lots of strength to boot! My personal choices for the RDE spot would be:
Cameron Jordan - Great strength and solid against both the run and the pass and has 3-4 experience
Cameron Heyward - Great strength and excellent against the run. His excellent work ethic could improve his pass rush abilities.
Muhammad Wilkerson - My personal favourite, he has exceptional strength to defend the run and already would not need to add any bulk. The added benefit here would be that we could probably get Wilkerson with either the 28th or the 33rd pick, so it certainly allows us to address other needs such as ROLB and OL.
Given the fantastic (in my opinion) job of drafting by Bill Belichick, Nick Caserio and Jon Robinson over the past two drafts, the Patriots are in prime position in this draft to address a clear position of need for the Patriots. The battles in NFL football, particularly in playoff football, are won and lost in the trenches as we have had so painfully reinforced to us over the past four years. Let's not miss the opportunity!