The New England Patriots have invested heavily in their defense and it's starting to pay off. Since 2012, the Patriots have used 11 of 13 draft picks in the first three rounds on the defensive side of the ball. The two offensive players are quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and wide receiver Aaron Dobson. They have had minimal impact.
The defense, on the other hand, is having incredible production.
In 2012, the Patriots selected Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Tavon Wilson, and Jake Bequette. In 2013, they added Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, and Duron Harmon. In 2014, Dominique Easley joined the defensive line. This past 2015 draft included Malcom Brown, Jordan Richards, and Geneo Grissom.
Jones, Hightower, Collins, Ryan, Easley, and Brown are all starters, while Harmon plays 50% of the snaps as the sixth defensive back. Richards plays 25% of the snaps as the seventh defensive back.
The other starters on defense are veterans Rob Ninkovich, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung, along with the undrafted Malcolm Butler. McCourty and Chung were also Bill Belichick draft picks.
Fact is, this entire defense has been sculpted over the past four seasons and the young talent is really starting to shine through. Jones leads the league in sacks, while Easley is one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
Collins and Hightower combine to create one of the top linebacker duos in the league, rivaled by only the Panthers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, and the secondary has made a near seamless transition from the star-studded 2014 roster.
There are stars at every single position, from Easley and Jones, to Hightower and Collins, to Butler and McCourty, and they are producing on the field.
The Patriots rank 5th in points allowed per game
New England has allowed 143 points on the season, including 7 from a Tom Brady pick-six. The Broncos rank first with 139 points against. Less than a touchdown separates the top six teams. Of the four teams in front of New England, only the Vikings haven't allowed a defensive score, but the 6th ranked Rams have allowed three, which means that the Patriots a solid 5th in the standings.
The Patriots rank 6th in points allowed per drive
The Rams have faced 97 drives and while they've allowed the 6th most points on the season, they're allowing the fewest points per drive. The Patriots have faced 88 drives, which means that the Rams have allowed 3 more points over 9 extra drives. On a per-rate basis, this gives St. Louis the edge.
The Patriots rank 2nd in rushing yards allowed per game
The New York Jets lead the league with 645 rushing yards allowed, while the Patriots are 2nd with 712 allowed. The Patriots ranked 28th through the first two games, but turned a corner very quickly. Since week 3, the Patriots have allowed the:
1) fewest rushing yards in the league with 418 yards allowed.
2) 3rd lowest yards per carry rate with 3.40 yards per carry, behind just the Broncos (3.30) and Jaguars (3.32).
3) 2nd fewest rushing touchdowns with just 1, behind the Bears 0 allowed.
That's really good.
The Patriots rank 7th in passer rating against
Opposing quarterbacks average an 83.1 passer rating against the Patriots, which means they make opposing quarterbacks look like Blake Bortles or Kirk Cousins on a weekly basis. This is good. New England trails the traditionally accepted heavyweights in the Panthers (68.9), Broncos (73.3), Cardinals (74.9), and Jets (78.0), but not every defense can make opposing quarterbacks look like Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck.
49% of the Patriots points allowed have come in garbage time
Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, and Washington all scored the most absolutely meaningless scores at the end of their games, which affects the Patriots seasonal stats. Well, it turns out that 70 of the Patriots 143 points allowed have come after the Patriots had a 99% chance of victory, which is easily the most in the league. Once the Patriots have the game in hand, the defense eases up to help drain the clock, which allows offenses to drive the ball more easily and put empty points on the board (and early estimates show the defense is allowing 50% more points in garbage time than would be expected in a competitive game).
Compare this to the Broncos (just 3 points in garbage time) and you'll see that a lot of the fluff that pushes the Patriots down the rankings is directly linked to the game script and the fact that the Patriots are just trying to end the game.
There is no team in the NFL more balanced than the Patriots
The New England defense can go toe-to-toe with any other defense in the league in any facet. They can stop the run and they can defend the pass with the best of them. No other team has an offense the caliber of the Patriots, warped offensive line and all, which means that no other defense gets to dictate the pace and outcome of the game as freely as the Patriots.
They might not have as many Pro Bowls as the Broncos or Jets. They might not have as many headlines as the Seahawks or Jets. They might not have the underdog status of the Cardinals or Panthers or Rams.
Sure, the ranks don't show the dominance, but garbage time plays a seriously large role in the bottom line. It doesn't matter. This Patriots defense is the best dang defense in football and they're proving it every single week.