The New England Patriots defense ranks 3rd in the NFL in points allowed per game and if you ask anyone on the Patriots, points are the end-all-be-all of defensive success. But we know this isn’t true; teams that allow more yards will allow more scoring opportunities over the course of the season, so there is some value to other statistics.
And this is where Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic comes in. DVOA is an all-in-one number that compares a team’s success to the league average and adjusts for strength of opponents.
This DVOA statistic has the Patriots defense rated 19th in the NFL, not 3rd, because of the team’s struggles to stop opposing offenses on third downs and in the red zone. The Patriots defensive DVOA is 2.1%, which means the team is 2.1% below average on defense.
But this isn’t the full story, according to Football Outsider’s Aaron Schatz.
“[The Patriots] had 29.3% defensive DVOA in Weeks 1-2, and only the Colts were worse,” Schatz writes. “However, since Week 3, the Patriots have put up a -6.7% defensive DVOA, which ranks 11th in the league over that time period.”
For reference, a 29.3% defensive DVOA means that the Patriots defense was roughly 2.5x worse than the 2011 Patriots defense. So the Patriots were one of the worst defenses in the league over the first two weeks due to their inability to stop Cardinals QB Carson Palmer and Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill in the second halves of games.
But since that point, the Patriots defense has been a far more respectable 11th in the NFL. The Patriots have gone from 24th in 3rd down defense over the first two weeks to 12th since week 3. The red zone defense has improved from 32nd (worst in the league) over the first two weeks to 8th best since week 3. The Patriots have fixed whatever problems they’ve had.
And the -6.7% defensive DVOA (ie: 6.7% better than the average defense) since week 3 is better than the Patriots defensive DVOA in 2015 (-3.3%), 2014 (-3.0%), 2013 (+4.2%), 2012 (+1.4%)...you have to go all the way to 2007 (-5.8%) and 2006 (-9.2%) to find a Patriots defense that compares.
This is not to say that the Patriots are without flaws; they clearly have breakdowns in coverage on a weekly basis. DVOA supports this. The Patriots DVOA on passing plays hasn’t changed since week 2- it’s actually dropped from +17.3% to +21.1%. But the run defense has received a major boost from -7.3% to -25.0%, the 6th best in the league.
The extreme nature of the Patriots defense- horrible against the pass and elite against the run- isn’t new to New England, although it’s rare in just how extreme they are. The 2012 defense was +14.0% against the pass and -16.0% against the run, the 2008 defense was +15.5% against the pass and -9.3% against the run, and the 2005 defense was +24.4% against the pass and -7.9% against the run.
But to sit +21.1% against the pass and -25.0% against the run is insanity and reveals a need to fix the pass defense somehow.
Part of the issue is with the lack of pass rush, which ED Chandler Jones would have absolutely helped- but I feel like the loss of DT Dominique Easley is flying under the radar as the most important defensive change because now the Patriots can’t generate any interior pressure without blitzing a linebacker. There’s no one to flush the quarterback into the arms of the edge rusher.
DT Anthony Johnson was expected to be that guy, but he’s been unable to sustain the success he had in the preseason and is biding his time on the practice squad. Even DT Akiem Hicks was a better interior pass rusher than what the Patriots have on the team.
My suggestion? Rookie DT Vincent Valentine. Valentine was the most efficient rookie interior pass rusher in the NFL before his back injury, and his freakish athleticism would make him a handful for offensive linemen. Even if he won’t offer the same ability as Easley, perhaps he could serve a similar function as Hicks.
The Patriots also have to figure out their secondary. FS Devin McCourty and CB Malcolm Butler are holding down the fort, but SS Patrick Chung has been a roller coaster and the #2 cornerback is up in the air. Is it CB Eric Rowe? Or CB Logan Ryan? Or even CB Justin Coleman?
“I think all those players have practiced well, have played well, deserve to play, and so they all had an opportunity to play,” head coach Bill Belichick said on Halloween. “They’ve all had an opportunity to play on multiple occasions during the course of the season and their performance will dictate future playing time and future opportunities. Some of that, as you noted, is related to certain defensive groupings and packages, and I would say some of it isn’t. Some of it is just the rotation and some of it’s just, once there is enough evidence in and there is a performance component to it where one exceeds another, then that changes the decision making pattern a little bit.”
In other words: no one has played well enough to win the job outright. The Patriots have been playing match-ups, with Rowe covering the big, tall receivers, Coleman covering the speedsters, and Ryan covering the tactical possession receivers. Cyrus Jones might actually be the most versatile of all, but he’s in the dog house and can’t even make the gameday roster.
There’s a lot for the Patriots to work out on every level of the defense. Thank goodness there’s a bye week.