Following the disappointing end to the 2010 NFL season for the New England Patriots, we as fans have spent the ensuing months discussing the key areas in which the Patriots must improve in 2011 in order to make a serious challenge for honours. As Bill Belichick himself would say: there are many ways in which a team can improve. However, it seems a general consensus has been reached that has identified three primary areas of concern for fans going into 2011:
- 1. Improved Pass Rush
- 2. Better Protection for Tom Brady
- 3. Lower Opponents 3rd Down Completion Percentage
I think we can all agree that if the Patriots can improve in these key areas, as well as maintain areas of their game which were strong in 2010 (e.g. turnover differential, offensive red zone efficiency...etc), they will be a very difficult team to face in both the regular season and the playoffs.
In order to judge how successful the Patriots may/may not be in 2011, I will maintain a weekly statistical analysis throughout the regular season (and hopefully playoffs), which focuses on 8 significant statistics. In this article, I will identify these areas together with a target for the Patriots to achieve on either a weekly/annual basis and throughout the season, I will cumulatively analyse the data...
Defensive 3rd Down Efficiency
Something I'm sure most fans were frustrated with in 2010 was the amount of times opponents had a 3rd and long and made a simple looking completion to move the chains. In a bend-but-don't-break defense, it's perhaps unrealistic to expect the lowest percentage in the league, but certainly the Patriots should expect a significant improvement from their 32nd ranked 47.1%. Looking at the final four teams in the playoffs in 2010, all had an average defensive 3rd down efficiency rating that placed them in the top 10 in the league (the mean of the Top 10 in defensive 3rd down efficiency was 34.47%). To achieve this mean would be some drop but certainly the Patriots should be targeting Top 10 statistics. The 10th ranked team in 3rd down defensive efficiency in the last 5 years has had an average efficiency rating of 37.04%.
2010 Defensive 3rd Down Efficiency: 47.1 %
2011 TARGET Defensive 3rd Down Efficiency: 37 %
Number of Sacks (Defense)
I admit to being conflicted about including this statistic in this analysis as it can be somewhat misleading. For example, defenses such as the Patriots and Jets finished with decent sack totals in 2010 (35 and 40 respectively) but both sets of coaches and fans feel their defense didn't get enough pressure on the quarterback. Constant pressure is, in many ways, much more important as a statistic than the sack - but equally hard to quantify. However, the sack is indicative of pressure as a by-product and is a solid barometer for good 3rd down defense, an area where the Patriots need to improve. Anyone disputing the importance of this statistic need only look at 2010: the Steelers and Packers conceded the least points per game in the league (15.0 and 14.5) and not surprisingly, led the league in sacks with 48 & 47 respectively! Significantly, of the 9 teams who finished 2010 with 40+ sacks, 7 of these teams were ranked in the top 10 in defensive 3rd down efficiency. Whilst I would say 40 should be the target, the team is clearly emphasising pass rush, so I would expect a more marked improvement than 5 sacks - a target of 45 would require 2.8 sacks per game (plus the obvious pressure required to achieve this total).
2010 Number of Sacks (Defense): 35
2011 TARGET Number of Sacks (Defense): 45
Rate of Patriot defensive 3-and-outs
Tied in with defensive 3rd down efficiency is that fact that in 2010, the Patriots simply allowed too many drives to go on too long. The 2010 Patriots racked up 32 three-and-outs, or an average of 18.3% of opponent drives ended in 3-and-outs, good for 28th in the league. This means opponents have more time with the ball and in turn, Tom Brady spends more time on the sidelines. As a comparison, the New York Jets were 1st in the league, forcing 63 three-and-outs for a drive average of 32.3% - almost 1 in 3 drives result in a 3-and-out! I appreciate the Patriots have a different defensive philosophy so perhaps the comparison is not apt, but other supposed bend-but-don't break defenses such as the Vikings, Panthers and Colts achieved over 40 3-and-outs and percentages close to 25%, not a huge jump but if we could force 25% of opponent drives into 3-and-outs rather than the current mark of 18%, it could make all the difference, particularly come playoff time.
2010 Rate of Defensive 3-and-outs: 18.3 %
2011 TARGET Rate of Defensive 3-and-outs: 25 %
Defensive Passer Rating
This is a stat we should all now be familiar with, given its historical correlation to Super Bowl winners. It simply averages out QB ratings achieved by opposing QBs against a given defense over the course of the year. Taking the recent history alone, in 2010 the Packers and Steelers were 1st and 2nd in the league respectively with DPR's of 67.23 and 73.78 and in 2009, the Saints were ranked 3rd with a DPR of 68.58. The 2010 Patriots were a mediocre 13th with a DPR of 81.23, meaning on a weekly basis, opposing QBs were having pretty decent games (although some stats were racked up in garbage time once the Pats were 17 points ahead!). In 2011, the Patriots need to at least break into the Top 10 in this statistic but should target the Top 5 given DPR's correlation to Super Bowl winners. In the last five years, the 5th ranked team has averaged a DPR of 73.83, so the target needs to be an approximate 7.5 point reduction.
2010 Defensive Passer Rating: 81.23
2011 TARGET Defensive Passer Rating: 73.80
Opponent Passing Yards Per Attempt
Again, this is another key statistic when analysing how the Patriots defense is faring against opposing passers. Rather than simply looking at yards or even completion percentage, the most effective statistic to monitor is opponents passing yards per attempt. In a bend-but-don't break defense, you can accept a reasonable completion percentage as long as the opponents YPA is low - you are allowing completions but only small completions and not many big plays. In 2010, the New England Patriot defense surrendered a 7.10 YPA to opposing quarterbacks, ranking 21st in the league. To put that into perspective, in 2009 and 2010, as the league has migrated further towards a passing league, the mean of the final four teams in the playoffs each year is 6.41 and 6.48 YPA respectively, indicating the Patriots should be targeting a reduction of over half a yard per attempt. With expected improvements in both pass rush and coverage, this should be achievable.
2010 Opponents Passing YPA: 7.10
2011 TARGET Opponents Passing YPA: 6.45
Defensive Red Zone Efficiency
Defensive red zone efficiency is a vital statistic, particularly come playoff time where points are at a premium. In 2010, the Patriots ranked 22nd in the NFL, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 56.36% of their red zone visits. However, it's worth noting that the top 3 in the NFL in this category all missed the playoffs (Top 3 in the league are Arizona: 39.13%, Miami: 40.00% and Tennessee: 41.27%). So why include this stat? Well, in the playoffs, points aren't easy to come by and the difference between 3 and 7 can change the outcome of games. Against the Jets in the 2010 Divisional Round, the Patriots defense had an 80% efficiency rating. I include this statistic because the Patriots should seek to make themselves difficult to score against in their own red zone - again, if the defense has an element of bend but don't break, you have to be stout when an opponent gets the ball in the red zone. The Pats should target a 25% reduction with the new talent and scheme.
2010 Defensive Red Zone Efficiency: 56.36%
2011 TARGET Defensive Red Zone Efficiency: 42%
It would be unrealistic to set a target that would exceed the historical differential that the 2010 Patriots achieved - a preposterous +27. To achieve this mark, Tom Brady had to set a record for fewest interceptions thrown in a season, together with going on the longest interceptionless streak in football history. However, TO differential is a very important statistic (14-2 would never have happened if it weren't for Brady's ball security and an opportunistic defense) and one which has a direct correlation to NFL success. While 2010 wildly surpassed expectations for this stat, a more prudent target can be obtained in looking at simply history: the Patriots have a tremendous record when winning the turnover battle against opponents, so if the team can average +1 in turnover differential each week (i.e. win the TO battle), history suggests this team will be very successful.
2010 Turnover Differential: +27
2011 TARGET Turnover Differential: +16
To me this is an underrated statistic and one which holds vital importance to the Patriots. Since the departure of Randy Moss, the Patriots do not have the ability to simply drop back and make throws that gain chunk yardage since they do not have the speed to stretch the field and generate that much space. Therefore, for this Patriot team to gain chunk yardage, it must be schemed through play action and other such means. Effective play-action relies on a solid and frequent running game, which the Patriots achieved in 2010, where they ran the ball 47% of the time. With no proven field stretchers again in 2011, the Patriots will have to produce another even ratio to gain the big plays. There is no doubt in my mind this team is much more efficient in moving the ball when it has balance. In the playoff loss to the Jets, Brady passed the ball a ridiculous 45 times as opposed to the Patriots running the ball 25 times, perhaps not the best example since the Patriots were playing from behind, but in a game where the Jets carried 11 defensive backs, that game was screaming out for offensive balance and too early the Patriots went away from the run. Similarly in the 2007 Super Bowl, a game that was close right to the end, the Patriots passed the ball 48 times with only 16 runs...in a close game! Most importantly, the run game arguably more than pass protection can help keep the pressure off Brady in the playoffs...
2010 Run:Pass Ratio: 47 : 53
2011 TARGET Run:Pass Ratio: 50 : 50