Either offenses are having some growing pains, or defenses are finally starting to catch up to the rise of offenses in recent times. After an explosion of production the last few seasons, defenses around the league have forced offenses into more three-and-outs- exactly 50 more than last year at this point in the season. The 502 three-and-outs through six weeks are the most since the 503 in 2009, with 469, 472, 452 sandwiched in between.
In fact, the 502 this season are the second most in the entire Brady/Belichick era. Before 2009, you have to go back to 1999 to find the league breaking the 500 barrier (528).
So where does this leave the Patriots defense? As of right now, they're tied for second in the league for most forced three-and-outs at 24 this year. Only the Kansas City Chiefs have more, with 26. The Cincinnati Bengals are tied with the Patriots at 24. And for those concerned about the fact that certain teams have only played five games, the Patriots are again tied in second for three-and-outs per game, with 4. No team cracked 20 or more forced three-and-outs through six weeks last season.
And those who are thinking about more rates (which you should be!), the Patriots clock in at 4th overall in three-and-outs per drive. The Patriots defense have forced a three-and-out of 31.6% of opposing drives, which is a hair under a third of drives. The Bengals lead the league with 24 three-and-outs on 70 drives, followed by the Texans (21 on 64), and then the Chiefs (26 on 82). But the Patriots sit comfortably in the top 4, with 5th place team nearly 4% behind New England.
Compared to last year? First off, no team force over 30% three-and-outs through six weeks. Only the Broncos finished the season over 30%, with a final of 30.9% (although the Super Bowl winning Ravens finished second with 29%). The Patriots found themselves in 26th place through, with a 16.7% three-and-out rate, and while they improved to 18.7% by season's end, they actually fell in rank to 28th in the league.
Baby, how far they've come.
A lot of focus has been on how the offense has struggled, and the praise for the defense has started to trickle in. The fact they were able to force the Saints into a 3-and-field goal and a 3-and-out on consecutive final drives and allowing New Orleans to chew up 1:25 of clock on those two drives combined (EIGHTY FIVE SECONDS), well, that's them breaking out. And they did that without all-everything cornerback Aqib Talib. And without all-everything defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. And without all-everything linebacker Jerod Mayo.
Let that sink in and just know that the Patriots are fielding a top 5 defense in the league. It's time to start calling them elite- it's just a matter of keeping them healthy.
On to the game.
Blount got past the 20. I don't even care what happens the rest of the game, I consider this a win.— Akshay Anand (@PFF_Akshay) October 13, 2013
So much for the Leon Washington experiment. LeGarrette Blount is back fielding kick-offs in the Danny Woodhead "not sure why he's doing that, but at least he doesn't fumble" role. Blount's 135 return yards are the lowest of the 26 qualifying players with 5+ returns (Blount has 6 returns), and his 22.5 yards/return is good for 22nd of 26.
The good news?
Blount ranks 9th out of 22 kick returners in the Belichick era with regards to yards/return, and sits right above (in order), Kevin Faulk (22.2), Danny Woodhead (21.8), Stevan Ridley (21.7) Julian Edelman (21.6), and Wes Welker (21.5).
So for as bad as it is for having Blount out there returning kicks? It's been worse. So much worse. Gone are the days of Ellis Hobbs (27.7), Laurence Maroney (! 25.9), Brandon Tate (25.8), and Bethel Johnson (25.0). And maybe those extra 3 yards between Blount and the latter three aren't worth as much to Belichick as the ball security Blount provides (and it's worth is approximately 0.15 expected points per drive).
But to see Blount cross the 20? Well. I'll take it.
Brady is right. Edelman can't throw it.— PatriotsXLVIII (@PatriotsXLVIII) October 13, 2013
I won't take this though. Edelman has since owned up to the play, calling it "horrible football," but the fact stands:
WHAT IN THE WORLD WAS THAT?!
The Patriots were up 3-0 in what was going to be a slug fest, the defense just forced a three-and-out (woo!), and you're going to lateral it?!
The offense, which was going to start on the bright side of the 20, was instead pinned on almost the 10 yard line as a result of the Edelman toss, giving it a lot less freedom to move around. He knows it was a bad idea, and there's little need to belabor the fact, but seriously.
Wow. Worst play call of the season until 2:24 left in the game.
This is the most Patriots I've seen the Patriots look all year.— Nick Underhill (@Nick_Underhill) October 13, 2013
The Patriots took a 17-7 lead into half time after having shut out Jimmy Graham in the first half and forcing the vaunted Saints offense into three three-and-outs on five drives. On the other side, the Patriots offense scored on three out of four drives to start the game (scoreless drive was started by Edelman's fumbletoss). This team was rocking.
And then after the half, the offense stalled. A questionable offensive pass interference call on Aaron Dobson derailed the first drive of the second half, but here's the breakdown:
Three-and-out, Extended drive for a 54 yard field goal, three-and-out, field goal after a Brees pick, three-and-out, single play interception, best Patriots drive since Brady returned from his 2008 injury (I would have also accepted the 2009 season opener against the Bills).
No doubt about this, this was the Patriots we've loved (stellar offense in the first half, incredible defense), with a dash of the Patriots we feared (weak offense for most of the second half, defense let up a late score to let the opposing team take a late lead).
You could make a list of the most important players the #Patriots couldn't lose at start of season. They are down of 4 out of top 5 rt now— Mike Loyko (@NEPD_Loyko) October 13, 2013
Mayo and Sproles down. Jeez, this game is a war of attrition— Akshay Anand (@PFF_Akshay) October 13, 2013
1. Tom Brady, 2. Aqib Talib, 3. Vince Wilfork, 4. Rob Gronkowski, 5. Danny Amendola, 6. Devin McCourty, 7. Jerod Mayo, 8. Chandler Jones, 9. Any of Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, or Sebastian Vollmer, 10. Rob Ninkovich
That would have been my top 10 list of important players at season's start and while Julian Edelman has lessened the need for a healthy Amendola, not much would be changed at this point. The fact that:
- Talib is nursing his historically injured hip, although he might be fine
- Wilfork is done for the year due to his achilles
- Gronkowski is who-knows-where
- Amendola is done through at least the bye week to rest up from the killer concussion he received and, hey, why not heal his groin while he's at it
- Mayo left the game with his arm in a sling
And the Patriots are 5-1 and still competing? I'm not sure how much longer the team can hold up, but for now they're battling the worst case of injuries to the most crucial positions out of any team in the league.
Rookie defensive tackles Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have played admirably, if not average, which is more than anyone can/should expect from a pair of rookies. Add in cornerback Logan Ryan (0 completions on three passes into his coverage) providing serious depth when Talib went down, and wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins stepping up in Amendola's absense and you have some impressive depth.
Let's see if the Patriots are going to be active during the trading period. This young team is getting a ton of valuable experience and they're still winning, but they could use some help moving forward. A veteran at defensive tackle could help out, if the price is right, while the injuries to Mayo and Talib have to be fully evaluated before determining the rest.
Opposing No. 1 weapons vs Patriots this year: Spiller 17-41. VJax 3-34. Julio 6-108. Santonio 3-51. AJ Green 5-61. Jimmy Graham 0-0. No TDs.— Evan Silva (@evansilva) October 13, 2013
And this is the value of Aqib Talib and how Bill Belichick has been so good at removing the opposing #1 threat from the game. No need to wax any more poetic about Talib, although an injury of any kind is cause for concern.
This decision making reared its ugly head last week, too. Why swing for the fences with so much time left?— Adam Fox (@lefoxtrott) October 13, 2013
Whoever this "Adam Fox" character is, I fully agree with him and everyone should start following him on Twitter.
The Patriots had a time out, the two minute warning, and 2:24 left on the clock to go down the field and score a touchdown.
So naturally, on the first play of the ensuing drive, Brady arm-punts it down the field in a pass similar to the monsoon game-clincher against the Bengals- except there was no rain. Easily his worst throw of the year. And like Edelman understanding his issue with the lateral, Brady owned up on his pass, calling the throw "a bad read." Brady said after the game that "Julian was running through the defense and [Brady] put it up there and just didn't make a good throw."
While conservative play is rarely the right call in end-game situations, being reckless is just as bad. Brady and the Patriots were extremely lucky they had enough time to pull the game out of the magician's hat.
and there's a whole lot of people sitting in traffic on Rte 1 that are pretty pi$$ed off they missed that— shalise manza young (@shalisemyoung) October 13, 2013
And that is why you never leave a game early. Even with the Red Sox coming up and the terrible, terrible traffic that lay ahead.
In fact, I bet 90% of the people who left early were able to hear the cheers from the stadium while they sat in their cars waiting to leave the lot.
I guess that's punishment enough.
On to the Jets.