The Hammer

Jared Wickerham

We've critiqued the offense- now how can the defense help close out the games?

We've addressed the offense and I'm glad it sparked some conversation. It's clear that the Patriots offense has undeniably weakened since the 2009 season been the weakest its been at closing out games since 2009, while the reason why is a good topic for debate. That said, we cannot forget one important factor.

How 'bout that defense?

Everyone knows that the Patriots defense was one of the league's elite during their Super Bowl runs- and everyone knows that defense has fallen by the wayside of the past couple of seasons. It's also clear the Patriots are retooling their squad by bringing in free agents and spending their top draft picks on key defensive players, most notably using their top three picks in this past draft on three defensive starters.

Still, this season feels like 2009 and 2010 and we've all pointed out how the defense hasn't been able to hold at key times in the game- but really, how different is the defense?

I've brought up the concept of the "dagger" for the offense. I'd like to call the defensive moments the "hammer".

Times when the team needs a big stop to save time on the clock and allow the offense to score. That's the Hammer.

Times when the defense digs deep and James Sanders picks off Peyton Manning to ice the game. That's the Hammer.

Times when Brandon Spikes goes Predator all over the ball carrier to force a fumble and get the ball back. That's the Hammer.

The defense has the ability to not only prevent the opposing team from getting back to compete, but also give the offense an opportunity to take the wind out of the stadium and close out the game.

Looking at the same time frame as the dagger moments- the final 7:30 of games within one score- I've picked out a couple facts that can show where this defense stands.

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Fact #1) Between the 456 plays between the 2001 and 2008 (8 seasons), the Patriots defense gave up 9 touchdowns in the final 7:30. Between the 219 plays between 2009 and now (~3.5 seasons), the Patriots defense has given up 9 touchdowns in the final 7:30.

That's a scary efficiency stat. Throughout each season, there has been roughly the same rate of games with a one score game in the final minutes; this implies the games haven't all of a sudden started getting closer. The amount of close games hasn't changed. Through all of these close games, there has been roughly the same number of plays by the opponent in the final minutes (roughly 9 plays).

Even though the number of close game opportunities and even the opportunities within the game itself has stayed constant, the touchdown rate has doubled (1.97% of plays to 4.11% of plays). That's cause for clear concern.

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Fact #2) While the field goal attempt rate has stayed the same through the entire time period (roughly 3.15%), teams have completed 85.7% (6 for 7) of their field goals since 2009. Prior to that, teams were hitting 57.1% (8 for 14).

So what's with the change in field goal hit rate? That comes down to luck, right? Maybe. No team has hit a 45+ yard field goal on the Patriots in the final 7:30 during this time frame- there were 3 misses prior to 2009 and 1 miss since that point, which is close enough to match the time frame ratio of 3.5:8 seasons. Hard to say the defense was keeping teams further away.

The big difference is the three misses within the 45 yard shot prior to 2009, compared to the zero misses since. That could be considered luck. One of the misses was a blocked 35 yard kick by Richard Seymour, while the other two were 39 and 42 yarders- hardly chip shots.

So when looking at the field goals, it seems as if the luck of the kick was regressing closer to the mean- as many have pointed out, Brady had never been on the wrong side of a missed game winning field goal until Stephen Gostkowski at Arizona. That's tremendous fortune.

So as the field goal opportunities have remained mostly constant, this means that the defense's poor play lies on the touchdowns allowed.

And look at that this way:

Since 2009, opposing teams have had scoring play opportunities (TD + FGA) on 7.31% of plays and have actually scored (TD + FGM) on 6.85%.

Prior to 2009, opposing teams had scoring play opportunities on 5.04% of plays and have actually scored on 3.73%.

Teams have scored on 3% more plays since 2009.

Playing with rates, prior to 2009 teams would have a scoring play on the Patriots in the closing minutes of a close game once every three games. Currently, they're allowing a scoring play in roughly two out of three games- and that's roughly in line with this season.

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Fact #3) The Patriots allowed 22.4% of plays to be converted into first downs prior to 2009. Since 2009, they've allowed 28.3%, an increase of 6%, the equivalent of an extra first down every other game- and when games come down to the final set of downs, that extra set is the different between a 45+ and a 35+ yard field goal- and that difference in range could be the game.

It's clear the Patriots have struggled with their third down defense, but this highlights the need for the defense to improve its ability to get off the field. As Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower improve, I can see this defense getting better and better. However, I still feel like a key piece on the defensive line's interior is missing to push this team over the top.

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Fact #4) Since 2009, the Patriots have forced 6 turnovers during the Hammer moments. That's a rate of 2.7% TOs/play. Prior to 2009, the Patriots forced 28 turnovers, an astronomical rate of 6.1% TOs/play. This means that, prior to 2009, the Patriots were forcing turnovers at almost the same rate as they've currently been allowing scores.

So if you think the Patriots defense has been opportunistic with turnovers the past few seasons- which they undeniably have- just keep in mind that the defense used to be even better about forcing those turnovers at key points in the game. That means corners can't keep dropping interceptions. Players have to start coming up with fumbles. Those little pieces tip the scale and elevate the defense to the next tier.

So let's recap what we've learned about the defense:

1) The team is giving touchdowns at an unprecedented rate.
2) Field goal attempts are still the same, teams are just hitting more often.
3) Patriots can't get off the field on third down.
4) The defense isn't forcing the turnovers they used to force.

On offense:

1) The offense is generating one of the league's worst yards/play rate late in games.
2) Brady isn't completed the same percentage of passes as he used to.
3) Brady isn't throwing as far as he used to, which can probably be attributed to his receivers.
4) The 2 minute offense is too focused on the same couple of players, making it easier to defend.

Combine all those factors and that's how you lose close games.

This isn't just about the offense. This isn't just about the defense. This is a clear example of a team loss and it will take a team to fix these issues.

The coaches will have to improve their decisions. An outside receiver will have to step up. The deep safeties will have to do their job. The running backs deserve the ball. The linebackers will have to keep forcing fumbles. For the past few years, the team hasn't been performing at its usual high level when the game is on the line. That will have to change.

I really believe all the building blocks are in place. Someone just has to bring the hammer.

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