The 2015 season is over and we're able to look at how the New England Patriots deployed their personnel over the course of the season. We're going to start with the defensive side of the ball.
I'm going to refer to formations in a numeric structure for ease of transcription. For example, a 2 defensive end, 2 defensive tackle, 2 linebacker, 3 cornerback, 2 safety set will be 22232. A 2 defensive end, 2 defensive tackle, 2 linebacker, 2 cornerback, 3 safety set will be 22223.
Get it? Good.
22232 was the most popular defensive package in 2015
The Patriots were in the three cornerback nickel package on 27.8% of all plays in 2015. Rob Ninkovich was the defensive end in 81% of these plays, while linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower accounted for roughly 70% of the linebacker snaps.
The ironman was cornerback Malcolm Butler who played in 100% of the snaps in this formation. Logan Ryan played 95.5%, while the third cornerback was a mixture of Justin Coleman and Leonard Johnson (combined for 87.3% of the third corner snaps). The remaining snaps for the cornerbacks are divided among Bradley Fletcher, Tarell Brown, and Rashaan Melvin.
The safety position was generally split up with a free safety (Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon) and a strong safety (Patrick Chung, Jordan Richards, and Tavon Wilson). McCourty and Chung are responsible for the two safety spots on 72.8% of these snaps, while the Harmon and Richards duo saw 13.9% of the total snaps thanks to blowouts and the Jets game in week 16.
22223 was the second most popular in 19.3% of scenarios
In 80.4% of the snaps where the Patriots featured three safeties, Duron Harmon was the third safety on the field. This usage is why the Patriots third safety is so important. On other occasions, Wilson and Richards were the third safety, which was generally against teams with multiple tight ends.
Subpackage Quick Facts
The Patriots were in the nickel (5 defensive backs) on 59.6% of snaps
The Patriots were in dime (6 defensive backs) on 19.8% of snaps
The Patriots were in prevent (7 or 8 defensive backs) on 4.0% of snaps
In sum, the Patriots featured 5 or more defensive backs on 83.5% of snaps
While the Patriots split snaps with their nickel corner (Justin Coleman) and nickel safety (Duron Harmon), the Patriots are playing with five defensive backs on a regular basis.
NASCAR needed Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, and Jabaal Sheard
The Patriots sat on their NASCAR package this season and only operated when they had the trio of Ninkovich, Jones, and Sheard available. The fourth in the package was one of Geneo Grissom, Rufus Johnson, or Dekoda Watson.
The Patriots actually stopped using the NASCAR package after week 2 against the Bills, before cracking it open in the playoffs with Watson. The defense allowed -3 yards on two passing plays out of the NASCAR in the playoffs.
The Patriots used two linebackers on 75.4% of downs
The Patriots loved to play with two linebackers, but sadly they were rarely at their best. The Patriots were only able to play both Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins on 39.5% of 2-linebacker downs, while at least one of them was available for 91.7% of 2-linebacker downs. Jonathan Freeny played 34.2% of the time and Jerod Mayo accounted for 29.2%.
Malcom Brown is a game changing defensive tackle
The Patriots defense was far better with their rookie defensive tackle on the field. Brown played 48.4% of possible snaps, which is great for a rookie defensive tackle in a rotation with multiple viable starters.
Teams averaged 6.0 yards per passing play and 4.3 yards per rushing play when Brown was on the sideline. They averaged 5.5 yards per passing play and 3.7 yards per rushing play when Brown was on the field. That's roughly half a yard better against both the pass and run when Brown is on the field.
The Patriots played Brown more on rushing downs, as opposing teams rushed 48.8% of the time when Brown was on the field, versus a mere 29.1% of the time when he was standing on the sideline.
Dominique Easley and Chandler Jones are pass rushing monsters
In a similar category, opposing passing offenses fell more when Easley and Jones were on the field than any other players. The loss of Easley and the injuries to Jones affected the defense more than most would admit.
Opposing teams averaged 5.98 yards per passing play with Easley off the field, versus 5.31 yards per passing play with him on the field, for a decrease of 0.67 yards per passing play. Opposing teams dropped from 6.45 to 5.60 yards per passing play with the addition of Jones- a decrease of 0.85 yards per passing play.
Their return in 2016 should provide a major boost for the defense.
Let me know if you're interested in any other information in the comments and I'll try to generate the data to post.