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Patriots DL coach explains complexity behind pass rush perception, defensive line play

These are the Patriots best defensive end pairings based on statistics.

On Tuesday, I tweeted out a table of data without any real context. I’ve been parsing through the Patriots lineups over the first half of the season and I’ve calculated the yards allowed by the defense when a certain player is or isn’t on the field.

The information doesn’t factor in down, distance, or fellow personnel, or even if the player was involved in the play, and its only value is to paint the defense with a big brush. But at least I can say, “Opposing teams have only run for 3.30 yards per play when Chris Long is on the field.”

But as I said, the chart holds little value without context. For example, teams will probably run for more yards when DT Anthony Johnson is on the field because he played on 3rd and long; the defense can allow to give up 5 or 6 yards because the runner will be shy of the first down marker.

So I had to laugh a little bit when I woke up this morning with a since-deleted tweet from ED Rob Ninkovich that said, “love this s—t.” in response to the chart. I have no idea what he means, how he found it, what his sentiment is to the chart, or why he wanted to send his 305th tweet directly to me.

I’m guessing he was searching “Chris Long” because they’re buds? Maybe he was showing support for his friend? Or maybe he saw that the numbers show teams running for the most yards per play (4.37) and passing for the most yards per play (6.33) when Ninkovich is on the field, and he’s going to use this as a chip on his shoulder?

I am not sure. But I thought it would be a good time to add the context that was missing in the original tweet.

Defending the run

There are two points that jump out when looking at defending the run: 1) the defense is so much more effective with Chris Long on the field; 2) the defense is so much less effective with Rob Ninkovich and Shea McClellin on the field.

When going through the data, it seems like the biggest difference comes in the Patriots standard nickel package, which consists of 2 defensive tackles, 2 edge defenders, and 2 linebackers (the 2-2-2). The Patriots have spent roughly 50% of their time this season in this formation; the second most frequent defensive front is is the 2-3-2, with three edge defenders, at a mere 9%.

When the Patriots play the 2-2-2 front with Ninkovich on the field (13% of all defensive snaps), they’re allowing 5.74 yards per carry (YPC). When Ninkovich is not on the field in the 2-2-2, the Patriots are allowing just 3.54 YPC.

In fact, the three worst run defense edge defender duos for the Patriots have been Long and Ninkovich (5.78 YPC on 18 rushes), Jabaal Sheard and Shea McClellin (6.21 YPC on 14 rushes), and Sheard and Ninkovich (7.00 YPC on 10 rushes).

On the flip side, the three best duos are Jabaal Sheard and Trey Flowers (4.50 YPC on 12 rushes), Sheard and Long (2.53 YPC on 34 rushes), and Long and Flowers (2.44 YPC on 16 rushes). If there is any argument that Flowers needs more time on the field, this is where it starts.

There are a few other combinations in the 2-2-2 front (Flowers+Ninkovich, Long+McClellin) but they have been used so infrequently it’s hard to quantify in a useful manner.

It’s clear that the Patriots run defense is at its weakest with Ninkovich and McClellin on the field- part of obvious reason why they’ve been considered tweeners their whole careers- but it’s also not fully their fault.

Bills RB Mike Gillislee kicked off the game with a 28-yard scamper against a 2-2-2 front, but he ran away from Ninkovich’s side and toward Sheard’s on the now-infamous Jamie Collins freelancer play. There was nothing Ninkovich could have done differently.

Bills QB Tyrod Taylor ran for 26 yards up the middle for a touchdown against the 2-2-2 front as Collins’ facemask was held and Alan Branch lost contain. Again, there was nothing Ninkovich, or Chris Long, could have done differently on this play.

Cardinals RB David Johnson ran for 45 yards away from McClellin in the 2-2-2 back in week 1 after every single linebacker and defensive back missed a chance to wrap him up in the backfield.

These are the three biggest runs against the Patriots this season- the only three longer than 17 yards- and they’ve all come against a similar nickel package. These are all plays that could have been stopped if Collins, Branch, and literally the entire defense did their jobs, respectively.

This isn’t to say that Ninkovich and McClellin can’t play better, but that perhaps we’ll see their numbers regress back towards the team average the more they play since just a couple of snaps that aren’t their fault skew the numbers.

And if I could close with section with one takeaway, it’d be #FreeTreyFlowers.

Defending the pass

When we look at the same 2-2-2 formation against the pass, we find that it is a lot more kind to Ninkovich. In fact, opposing teams have averaged just 2.44 yards per pass (YPP) when both Ninkovich and Sheard are on the field, well below the team average of 6.82 YPP.

And I think it’s also point to this quote from Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly when evaluating the pass rush.

“Pass rush is a very difficult thing to quantify, if you will,” Daly said Tuesday, via NESN. “A lot of people want to judge it based on sack numbers (and) quarterback hit numbers. I think there’s a lot of other things that go into play there: keeping scrambling quarterbacks in the pocket, forcing quarterbacks that aren’t as mobile to move out of the pocket, the kind of marriage of coverage and rush. And certain times game plan-wise, you may be — we may sacrifice some pass rush to take away a back or a tight end.

“The reality is, you’re trying to affect the quarterback. However you get that done to be more successful is what the ultimate goal is in winning the game. So, I think it’s a very difficult thing to put your finger on in terms of ‘is it successful, is it not successful?’”

If you go back and look at the chart, you’ll notice that there’s no real notable difference in passing yards per play on a edge defender to edge defender basis. You can check out SigUp’s Patriots pass rush tracker here, which is a nice job of seeing how players perform on a weekly basis.

The Patriots have approached the pass rush in a few different ways this season, with a conservative approach to back-up Steelers QB Landry Jones, and a more reserved approach to mobile QBs like Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Tannehill, but there’s been one consistent factor: inside linebacker pressure.

It seems like the coaching staff is content with rushing four, as the ends squeeze the pocket, with the defensive tackles compressing from the front. This strategy contains the quarterback inside the pocket and forces them to throw the ball. If the Patriots want to actively hit the quarterback, they need to send Dont’a Hightower up the middle.

And while the Patriots have the 6th lowest sack rate in the NFL, they have allowed an 84.9 passer rating over the course of the season, which ranks 10th best. The team is sacrificing a pass rush in order to eliminate the quarterback scramble or the outlet pass to a running back, and all of the pass rushers are pretty equal in fulfilling the job requirements.

In a league where quarterbacks are releasing the football more quickly and are increasingly more athletic, generating interior pressure and containing the quarterback is more and more important. Over half of the quarterbacks in the league are capable of doing damage with their legs; Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia are selling out to prevent that from happening.

The Patriots haven’t faced a statue at quarterback since week 1 and Cardinals QB Carson Palmer. They won’t face another one until weeks 14 and 15 against Ravens QB Joe Flacco and Broncos QB Trevor Siemian. Every other quarterback is either mobile, offers a quick release, or will be a rookie that faces the Landry Jones treatment.

All of these edge defenders are helping with the 6th best run defense in the NFL, per DVOA. They, and the coaches, are still fiddling with a game-plan defense that will feature some new faces in the second half of the season. The defense is a work in progress with a target completion of January. Hopefully they’ll be ready when the time comes.