The New England Patriots did not have a bad defense over the first ten weeks of the season, by any measure. They ranked 6th in points allowed per game. The 89.1 passer rating allowed ranked 13th in the NFL, as did the 4.09 yards per carry allowed.
The Patriots did rank 20th in first downs allowed per game, giving up 21 per game, a struggle that reared its ugly head in the week 10 showdown between the Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks converted 50% of their third down attempts and prevented the Patriots defense from getting off the field.
After that loss to the Seahawks, the Patriots defense improved its level of play.
“It’s just guys growing together,” Patriots defensive captain and linebacker Dont’a Hightower said on WEEI on Monday morning. “A lot of guys were pulled in. [Eric Rowe], [Kyle Van Noy] and [Shea McClellin], a lot of guys we didn’t have as much experience to work with in the past couple of years. We finally started to click and got that continuity and we’re able to count on one another without even giving a call, we have that chemistry now.”
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick happens to agree.
“I wouldn’t disagree with anything that High says,” Belichick said on Wednesday morning. “He’s right in the middle of it. When you’re the middle linebacker out there on the field with the defense nobody has a better feel for the players and their level of confidence and communication and so forth than he does. Whatever he says I would accept on that.”
Over the past five weeks, the Patriots have allowed the second-fewest points per game (behind only the New York Giants), the passer rating against has dropped to 84.6, and the 3.43 yards allowed per rush ranks 3rd in the NFL. The Patriots are the only team in the NFL not to allow a rushing touchdown over the past five weeks.
And when it comes to first downs, the Patriots have averaged just 15 first downs allowed per game, 6 fewer per game and the fewest per game in the entire league.
“I don’t think you just get better in one game,” Belichick added. “Sometimes a game can give you a little spark or impetus; I agree with that. Each day we come in here and meet and watch film and walkthrough and practice and work together to try and improve our performance and our preparation and it’s targeted towards a certain team but over the course of time a lot of those situations will repeat themselves. Situations will come back up or fundamentals and techniques will occur so that improvement will usually have an opportunity to manifest itself in another situation or similar situation that can be used.”
The week 11 game against the San Francisco 49ers represents a moment where a lot of moving pieces fell into sync at the same time. It’s when the Patriots settled on a four-man rotation at defensive end, with Trey Flowers leading the way. It’s when DT Vincent Valentine saw his playing time expand from 25% of the snaps to 40% of the snaps.
It’s when LB Shea McClellin became a member of the base defense and not just a special teams player, and when LB Kyle Van Noy entered the line-up for the first time. It’s when CB Eric Rowe solidified his role in the secondary and when CB Logan Ryan discovered his mojo.
Every player has seen their performance improve in recent weeks, with veterans like FS Devin McCourty and ED Chris Long being more active around the ball. The defensive playcalling has appeared more creative, with unique pressures from defensive back blitzes helping to force negative plays- and players are simply winning their one-on-one battles better than they were before.
The improvements on the defensive side of the ball is no different than what we’ve seen on the offensive line this year. The coaching staff settled on a starting five offensive linemen and allowed them to grow over the course of the season until they were comfortable enough to have RT Marcus Cannon stonewall Broncos pass rusher Von Miller on an island.
That’s where the defense currently stands. After weeks of general unhappiness with the performance of key starters on defense, the coaching staff finally settled on a starting lineup opened up the playbook.
And with the playoffs right around the corner, the Patriots defense couldn’t have picked a better time to play its best football.