We knew that feeling. Everyone knew it. The other team's quarterback would drop back and launch a deep ball that would inevitably be caught, or at the very least the receiver would be interfered with, and they would continue to march down the field.
The secondary was a sieve.
Between the 2010-2012 seasons, the Patriots were last in the league in allowing passing plays of 20+ yards. Over those three seasons, they allowed 210 passing plays of 20+yards, or 70 per season, or 4.375 per game. The second worst team over that span of time was Miami, with 181 plays allowed, nearly 10 plays fewer per season. The best team, Pittsburgh, allowed only 103 such plays- over 100 fewer over three seasons. The Patriots were terrible and there was no one like them.
But then, it appeared Bill Belichick had enough. He traded for elite man coverage cornerback Aqib Talib for a cheap mid-round draft pick in the middle of the 2012 season. Talib took a while to adjust to the Patriots defense- they were playing much more zone than he was used to- but the impact was obvious. Over the first half of the 2012 season, the Patriots allowed a league worst 42 passing plays of 20+ yards. Down the second half stretch they improved and, while they still were the worst over the final eight games, they allowed 32 plays.
In the 2012 season, finished last in allowing these big passing plays, an absurd 2.39 standard deviations worse than the average team, which means that with I'm 99.16% sure that this defense was awful- like, there's less than one percent chance that a random team could be worse against the pass than the Patriots were in 2012. People were justifiably calling for cornerback coach Josh Boyer's resignation letter because of the poor output. Things had to change.
The acquisition for Talib was a baby step, but it was a clear step in the right direction. Talib allowed the Patriots to stick former Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty at safety and the move provided the secondary with a smart player to be the backstop that the team had been missing for half a decade. The defense hadn't fully evolved. It was growing. But that's exactly what they needed.
The 2013 season featured some continuity that the Patriots hadn't had in a while. They returned both starting safeties in McCourty and fellow former cornerback Steve Gregory. They returned their top three starting corners in Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington. And they improved their depth; instead of featuring journeymen like Antwaun Molden and Nate Jones (like they did in 2011), they managed to retain their depth in Marquice Cole and improve the position in the draft by using a third round pick on Logan Ryan.
The continuity has allowed the Patriots to feature some additional wrinkles in the defensive coverage that they haven't been able to use over the past few seasons. Instead of relying so heavily on the zone defense, as they had in the past (and in my opinion, is a horrible defensive strategy for a team that struggled to generate any pass rush), the Patriots now run the most man coverage in the league, and Talib is the centerpiece.
Until he got hurt, of course.
Then Dennard stepped up and did the same thing- absolutely shut down the opposition's main receiver.
Through eight games, the Patriots have allowed only 27 passing plays of 20+ yards, an improvement of nearly two plays per game over last season. That's a minimum improvement of 40 yards, just from those two plays. And the two touchdowns of 20+ yards the Patriots have allowed are tied for fifth best in the league.
When comparing the Patriots defense to the average team this year, you won't see too much different- because this teams ranks as "average". They rank 14th best in percentage of passes that go for 20+, and they're tied for 9th in total number of 20+ passing plays. Their big plays allowed per game ranks 16th- smack dab in the middle. Average. However, compared to last season's absolute worst team in the NFL ranking? Average is a major improvement.
In fact, the change in the Patriots secondary is amongst the biggest changes over last season. If the Broncos and the Bears secondary didn't go from "above average" to "total dumpster fire" the best in the league, then the Patriots would be neck-and-neck with the Texans for biggest change.
The Texans (playing this year's version of the historical San Diego Chargers) have a strong defense in all facets of the game, leading the league in yards against- and if they hadn't allowed 49 points on special teams/offense, their points against per game would rank 10th in the NFL. Their secondary has gone from playing like Oakland and Washington to playing like Seattle and San Francisco.
The Patriots? They've gone from playing like a junior varsity team (or even worse than this year's Broncos secondary) to playing like an average football team. The improved pass rush from Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich definitely helps, but most of the growth lies with the secondary.
Talib has locked down almost every target he's faced this season.
When Talib was out, Dennard did more of the same- the number of plays that went for 20+ actually decreased from the first quarter of the season to the second quarter, going from 14 to 13.
According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots have been the 3rd best team in the league when facing up against opposing #1 wide receivers (behind the incredible Alterraun Verner of the Titans, and the San Francisco 49ers). Last year, New England ranked 14th.
Beyond the starting outside cornerbacks, Kyle Arrington has played solid football all season, giving the Patriots a trio of cornerbacks who can defend the ball at all levels of the field (I was going to say "except Arrington on the sideline" but the way he handled Mike Wallace will make me bite my tongue until he proves otherwise). They haven't had that in a while.
The new defensive man coverage is only possible, though, because the Patriots have such trust in their safeties. Devin McCourty has shown sideline-to-sideline range and he's possibly the smartest player on the defense. The coaches can trust him. Gregory has grown tremendously over last season as well, even earning the green dot to call the plays last week.
Talib. Dennard. Arrington. McCourty. Gregory. (Ryan!). Josh Boyer.
In just half a season, Josh Boyer, with Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick, has turned around a train wreck and put a legitimate secondary on the field.
Where the Patriots used to be the most vulnerable against the deep pass, is now a thing of the past. That feeling when the opposing quarterback cocks back their arm? No sweat.
The Patriots secondary is on a clear upswing that they should review and learn from for the second half of the season. For the fans, it's allowing us peace of mind. For the team, though, it's just part of their evolution.
For those curious, here are the biggest turnarounds against big passing plays:
1. Houston Texans - Went from below average to elite.
2. New England Patriots - Went from abysmal to average.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Went from almost as bad as the Patriots to almost as good as the Patriots.
4. New Orleans Saints - Went from slightly worse than the Buccaneers to slightly better than the Buccaneers
5. New York Giants - Went from below average to slightly above average.
1. Denver Broncos - Went from above average to full 2012 Patriots
2. Chicago Bears - Went from slightly above average to full 2011 Saints
3. Dallas Cowboys - Went from average to 2011 Buccaneers
4. San Diego Chargers - Went from slightly above average to 2011 Dolphins
5. Jacksonville Jaguars - Went from slightly above average to let's be serious, their whole secondary is made of rookies, right?