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Patriots have faced weak slate of quarterbacks in 2016, but was 2015 any different?

One of the biggest criticisms of the Patriots defense is their weak schedule of opposing quarterbacks. Is that a fair critique?

The one time the New England Patriots played a good quarterback in 2016, they had their rear ends handed to them. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw all over the Patriots defense that only ranks 3rd in the NFL in points against because they haven’t faced anyone good.

That’s a common narrative this year and it’s not untrue. It’s used to invalidate the success of this year’s defense, and it’s usually in comparison to last year’s defense. My question: Has anyone looked at the quarterbacks the Patriots faced last year?

The AFC East quarterbacks haven’t changed, although it’s arguable that Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Fitzpatrick should be better in their second seasons as starters, and Ryan Tannehill should be better now that Joe Philbin and Dan Campbell aren’t crushing his soul.

And while the 2016 Patriots have played the likes of Charlie Whitehurst (Browns) and Landry Jones (Steelers), let’s not forget that the 2015 Patriots were fortunate enough to face Zach Mettenberger (Titans) and Brandon Weeden (Cowboys).

Let’s also not forget that Russell Wilson (Seahawks), Andy Dalton (Bengals), and Carson Palmer (Cardinals)- the top trio for the 2016 Patriots- posted the top three passer ratings in 2015. Better than Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers), Eli Manning (Giants), and Kirk Cousins (Washington). Remember also that the Patriots faced Andrew Luck returning far too early from injury (Colts), and that Luck was actually a bottom 5 quarterback by passer rating in 2015.

If anyone wants to argue whether Brian Hoyer or Sam Bradford or Colin Kaepernick or Trevor Siemian is better, feel free.

Point is, the slate of quarterbacks in 2015 was not considerably better than what the Patriots have faced in 2016, and yet the 2016 defense receives a lot more criticism despite similar performances.

The criticism is reasonable. The team returned every defensive starter other than Chandler Jones, so the unit should have improved. They haven’t. There is a degree of disappointment that the team is not producing at a higher level.

There’s also the argument that the defense isn’t doing their job at hindering quarterbacks. In 2015, eight quarterbacks produced at a level below their season average. A further two quarterbacks were with five passer rating points of their season average (Roethlisberger and Eli Manning).

That leaves just six quarterbacks that produced at a higher level than average: Luck; Fitzpatrick, twice; Bradford and the Eagles; Mettenberger; and Tannehill in the season finale.

In 2016, the only quarterbacks the Patriots have forced into bad games are the ones that are already bad- the Osweilers, Whitehursts, and Landry Jones of the world. Palmer exceeded his season average passer rating by 21.4 points. Dalton by 13.7. Wilson by 30.7. Kaepernick by 10.4. Heck, even Fitzpatrick exceeded by a ridiculous 43.0 (although I guess he has a history of showing up against the Patriots).

The flaw in the Patriots defense isn’t that they haven’t faced a good quarterback this year; they’ve faced roughly the same caliber and they’re a couple of interceptions away from allowed the same passer rating against. It’s that the defense doesn’t rise to the occasion with the opposing talent level.

The defense is better against bad quarterbacks in 2016 than it was in 2015, but the 2015 defense limited quarterbacks with above-average passer ratings to 9.7 points below their season average. The 2016 defense has allowed good quarterbacks to excel- and this will be a serious problem when the playoffs come around.

So, yes, the defense is underperforming, but don’t use the weak roster of opposing quarterbacks as proof of any sort. Instead, point to the good quarterbacks that the Patriots have faced, and highlight how the team hasn’t been rising up to the challenge.