The New England Patriots #2 ranked defense has been pretty simple all season. While they want to limit the points scored by the opposing team, head coach Bill Belichick is more concerned with getting the win than with anything else; a win by 3 is worth the same as a win by 30.
This leads the defense to play more simple coverages, especially when the team has a big lead, because there’s no need to give future teams a look at at more of the playbook than necessary.
Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell tried to explain the Patriots defense at a press conference this week.
“They’ve got a really good front,” Bell said about the Patriots defense. “They’ve got talented players up front. They trust a lot in their front seven. They play a lot of two-high safeties, so it allows their defensive line and their linebackers to kind of go out there and make plays. They try not to get beat over the top too much. They try to take away the big plays so I think we need to find a way to chip them down and take what they give us, because obviously, they’re a bend-but-don’t-break defense and they thrive off offensive mistakes.”
The “bend-but-don’t-break defense” is exactly what people dislike about the Patriots defense because it operates counter to the shut-down squads that the Broncos and Seahawks have fielded in recent years. The Patriots have invested heavily in their defense, so why don’t they inspire as much trepidation as other teams?
“Defensively, if you can not give up big plays, and force the team to drive through the red area, and then play well in the red area and not give up touchdowns, give up field goals, then how many points can you score?,” Belichick posed on WEEI’s Dale & Holley Show with Thornton, via ESPN. “It’s hard to get a lot of points that way.”
“It’s all about points,” Belichick added. “How do you score points? You score points in the red area. Goal-line. So there are a lot of points involved there.”
The Patriots want to force teams to string together 12-, 13-, or 14-play drives in order to score, and it’s still considered a win if the other team walks away with a field goal.
The entire strategy hinges upon two factors: 3rd down defense and turnovers.
Teams have converted roughly 40% of their third down attempts this season, with the Patriots defense ranking 27th in the league with a 44.2% allowance rate. The Patriots goal is to take away big plays and to force teams to attempt multiple third down attempts on a given drive.
Teams have a 20% chance of converting two third down plays against the Patriots and, while New England wants to be better on third down, those are pretty good odds for the defense on any given drive.
This strategy is supposed to impact the opposing team’s ability to score in the red zone, too, as the defense should theoretically generate 3rd down stops close to the goal line. Unfortunately, teams have scored touchdowns on 71% of red zone drives.
The turnovers are a different problem entirely.
“We haven’t had the number of turnovers that we’d like to have defensively,” Belichick said on WEEI. “That’s always a point of emphasis.”
Belichick always talks about turnovers having the highest correlation to winning and the Patriots have been bad at forcing turnovers this year. In fact, the 8 forced turnovers by the Patriots this year is tied for the 2nd-lowest through 6 games by a Belichick defense since 2000.
Only the 2005 defense had forced fewer turnovers through 6 games (3). Of course, the Patriots are currently tied with the 2015 defense and are one shy of the 2001 defense through six games. The average Belichick defense has had 11 or 12 turnovers through six games, so look for the Patriots defense to step up and generate a few more turnovers in the coming weeks.
The Patriots defense has been bad on third down and at forcing turnovers, which makes the bend-but-don’t-break defense more unbearable to watch. If history is any guide, the Patriots defense will improve in the second half of the season.
The Patriots defense has improved on 3rd down in the second half of four of the past five years (2013 lone exception), including a jump from 41.3% in the first half of 2015 to 33.6% in the second half, and an improvement from 43.1% to 37.0% in 2014.
Belichick and the Patriots have a strategy and they’ve followed it to multiple Super Bowls and conference championships. This year is no different.