Like any successful businesses, the Patriots will be sitting down at the end of the season (they probably already have done now that the Pro Bowl is finished) to discuss how to make improvements next year that will bring the next Super Bowl title to Foxborough. With the draft upcoming, it is important that the Patriots outline key areas on which to focus their improvement strategy, so that when the draft and free agency come around, the Patriots will be well positioned to make the right choices in the best interests of the team. Teams that go through the process of self analysis and continuous improvement effectively each year will have long term success. In this analysis, I have focused on key statistical areas in which I feel the Patriots need to focus their improvements this offseason. It must be noted that these are in no particular order of importance, nor have I chosen this analysis to suggest HOW these improvements be made. I have simply looked at statistical data to indicate areas which the Patriots NEED to improve in order to have a shot at a fourth title in the 2011 season...
Defensive Red Zone Efficiency
As we all know, the New England Patriots have adopted more of a bend but don't break approach to defense. Given the approach, it is inherent that yards will be given up between the 20's. However, a key to this form of defense is the ability to stop opponents from scoring touchdowns when inside the Red Zone. In 2010, the Patriots ranked 22nd in the NFL, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 56.36% of their red zone visits. Whilst this statistic is not necessarily an indicator of regular season success (the Top 3 in the league are Arizona: 39.13%, Miami: 40.00% and Tennessee: 41.27%), I think come playoff time, it can have a huge impact on games as they tend to be much closer. In the Divisional Round loss to the Jets for example, the Jet offense scored on 80% of their red-zone visits, highlighting the need for solid Defensive Red Zone production. Especially in the post-season, the difference between a touchdown and a field goal can mean the difference between a Super Bowl and a pat on the back.
Patriots Kickoff Return Average
In 2010, the Patriots ranked 3rd in the NFL in average offensive drive start, with Tom Brady getting the ball on average at the 32.1 yard line. This excellent stat can be somewhat attributed to the performance of the Punt Return team, and in particular Julian Edelman, who returned punts for an average of 13.4 yards (3rd in the NFL). Also contributing was the electric start to the year by the kickoff return team and in particular, Brandon Tate who, within the first four games, already had 2 returns for touchdowns. However, the production of the kickoff return unit massively tailed off in the second half of the season, so much so that it probably wasn't just me thinking the Patriots should just take the touchback to avoid injuries on a kick return which would only get to the 20 anyway! Overall in 2010, the Patriots returned kickoffs for an average of 22.0 yards, ranking the unit 18th in the league. Poor performance from the kick return unit in the second half of the season needs to be a Special Teams priority for improvement going into the offseason, be it from a coaching/scheme standpoint, talent on the field or execution.
Defensive Passer Rating
After reading a very good article by Kerry J. Byrne (from Cold Hard Football Facts), my interest in this statistic has been heightened...as should every other Patriot fan. Defensive Passer Rating (DPR) is a simple ‘quality' statistic used to rate defences against opposing quarterbacks. For example, to measure the Patriot Defensive Passer rating, this method averages out all quarterback ratings when playing AGAINST the Patriots this year. It is an incredibly insightful and underrated statistic for indicating success. In 2010, the Packers and Steelers ranked 1st and 2nd in the league with DPR's of 67.23 and 73.78. Last year's Super Bowl winner? The 2009 Saints ranked 3rd with a DPR of 68.58. So where did the 2010 New England Patriots rank? The Patriots rolled in at 13th with a DPR of 81.23. To me, a clear focus next year can be to improve this statistic to reach the Top 10 or even Top 5, given its indication of Super Bowl success (seriously, read the article...it's an awesome statistic in judging success!).
Number of Sacks & Pressures
The Patriot defense recorded 35 sacks in 2010, a respectable number which was an improvement from their 2009 total of 31. The Patriot defense needs to continue this positive trend in 2011. I have shown the statistical importance of the sack in other articles and how it correlates to getting off the field on 3rd down and also in scoring defense. For anyone not counting, the Steelers and Packers lead the NFL in sacks (48 & 47) and conceded points per game (14.5 & 15.0). Furthermore, 9 teams recorded 40 or more sacks in 2010 - 7 of those teams ranked in the Top 10 in defensive 3rd down efficiency. Sacks matter! However, as Slot Machine Player has recently pointed out (and which I very much agree) pressures are vitally important. A team can have five sacks in a game but if those were the only five times that team went near the quarterback, chances are, the quarterback had a pretty good game. The Patriots need to improve not just their sack numbers, but their defensive presence in opponents backfields to one which is more frequent, even at times when not reaching the quarterback in time.
Increase in Forced Fumbles
During the 2010 season, Patriot fans all witnessed the importance of turnovers and the effect they can have on the outcome of games. Defensively, the Patriots were the best in the league at taking the ball away via interceptions with 25. When considering the youth of the defense, and in particular, the secondary, it makes this statistic all the more impressive. However, looking at another form of generating turnovers - the forced fumble - it is a different story. Alarmingly, the Patriots tie for 31st in the league at forcing fumbles, forcing only 11 on the whole season. This is an area in which the whole defense is accountable - the linebackers and linemen need to jar the ball loose more often from ball carriers rather than simply tackle them (a criticism often levelled at Jerrod Mayo). Furthermore, if the defensive backs are going to allow some pass completions in a bend but don't break defense, they need to focus on getting the ball loose once the completion is made. The Patriots can't rely on interceptions all the time. Look at the playoff loss to the Jets when the defense didn't get the interception/s! They need to be able to force fumbles to complement the turnover total. This should be an area of focus in training camp...not just tackling drills but more focus on stripping the ball. The Steelers forced 24 fumbles this season, whilst the final four teams in the playoffs forced an average of 20 fumbles!
Defensive 3rd down efficiency
It's no secret that the Patriot defense ranked dead last in the league in defensive 3rd down efficiency, allowing opponents to complete 47% of 3rd downs. Anytime you rank dead last in a statistical category should set the alarm bells ringing that something is amiss. Again, comparing this statistic to other teams in the league, the final four teams in the 2010 Playoffs all had defences which ranked in the Top 10 in defensive 3rd down efficiency. The mean 3rd down efficiency of those four teams was 35.5%. Further analysis of 3rd down defensive efficiency of previous final four teams identifies a clear target for the Patriots. In 2009, the mean was 37.25%, whereas in 2008 and 2007, the mean was an identical 35.25%. The only year the Patriots ranked less than 35% was in 2007, where they had a defensive 3rd down efficiency of 34%...not a coincidence perhaps that the Pats went to the Super Bowl that year. Therefore, an obvious target would be that 35% mark, meaning the Patriots would have to cut 3rd down completions by almost a quarter from the 47% mark of 2010.
Opponents Passing Yards Per Attempt
Whilst the Patriot defense gave up plenty of passing yards in 2010, yards by themselves are a somewhat meaningless statistic. However, a quality stat to measure of opposing quarterbacks is Yards Per Attempt. This measures how big those chunks of yardage are, which are being given up. In 2010, the New England Patriot defense surrendered a 7.10 YPA to opposing quarterbacks, ranking 21st in the league. It was the worst mark of all AFC playoff teams (the closest of which was the Colts at 6.78 - quite a bit better!) and only Seattle in the whole playoff field had a worse ranking. The two Super Bowl teams, the Steelers and the Packers boast the two best scoring defences in the league and they limit opponents to 6.31 and 6.53 YPA respectively. In a league where winning is increasingly related to successful passing games, limiting an opponent quarterback's YPA is clearly an area the Patriots can target for improvement.