The folks over at Pro Football Focus (PFF) have compiled and shared 50 nuggets from their scouting, statistics, and tracking that reveal some pretty interesting trends around the league. The piece starts by giving a team-specific stat for every franchise and the Patriots are up first.
“Jabaal Sheard earned the highest grade of any Patriots defender in 2015,” reads the Patriots headline.
“In mid-March, the New England Patriots traded Chandler Jones for a second-round pick and Jonathan Cooper,” PFF analyst Sam Monson writes. “Jones’ contract was due up at the end of the season, but he was deemed expendable due to the play of Jabaal Sheard. Sheard’s grade (88.0 of 100.0) on the 2015 season was significantly higher than Jones’ (77.5) in over 300 fewer snaps. Sheard also owned the top run-defense and pass-rush grades for the Patriots’ defense, and graded seventh overall in the NFL among edge defenders.”
Sheard has been sidelined with an MCL sprain, but he’s been wildly effective for the Patriots and should step into the leading role for the upcoming season. While it remains to be seen if Sheard will stick around beyond 2016, the Patriots have done a great job of developing and recruiting talent at the position.
Sophomore Trey Flowers has been excellent as Sheard has not been available and veteran Chris Long looks like his former dominant self. Those two will join Sheard as the top rotation on the edge while Rob Ninkovich recovers from his torn triceps.
There’s also a chance that Ninkovich is no longer an edge defender, as we learned during offseason camp activities. Ninkovich was working out with the linebackers and could play the strongside linebacker (SAM) role that we saw Shea McClellin feature against the Saints this preseason.
The use of Ninkovich and McClellin will be interesting to monitor, thanks to this next fact:
“Last season, on a league-wide basis, teams had five or more defensive backs on the field for 63.4 percent of all defensive snaps,” Monson writes. “Base defense might be what we all think of when we list starters, but nickel defenders are playing almost two-thirds of all defensive snaps, and any “two-down” player is in fact likely only playing around a third of his team’s defensive snaps. The Patriots led the league last season with 83.6 percent of their defensive snaps featuring five or more defensive backs.”
The Patriots used five or more defensive backs more than 80% of the time, the highest mark in the league. In other words, if the Patriots forced two three-and-outs on defense, they likely used a “traditional” base defense on just one of those six plays.
So if the Patriots use five defensive backs so frequently, where do the defensive front seven players fit into the scheme? With Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins locks to always be on the field, there are just four other positional players that can play at any time.
That means the defensive tackle rotation with Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, and Vincent Valentine will have to balance with the edge defender rotation of Sheard, Long, Flowers, Ninkovich, McClellin, and even Barkevious Mingo and Geneo Grissom. There simply isn’t enough space on the field for all of these players.
I wouldn’t be surprised if these edge players all hovered around 50% and 70% of the defensive snaps, a far cry from the 99% participation we saw from Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich in recent years.
And this is a good thing. These players will be fresh and better able to attack the pocket because quarterbacks “kept clean have an average passer rating of 97.7,” per PFF.
“But just by moving a QB off his spot, his passer rating drops to 78.4, and when attempting a pass under pressure, the average NFL QB’s rating drops to 71.6,” Monson writes. “His completion percentage drops under 50.0 (48.6 percent) and that touchdown-to-interception ratio is far closer to 1:1 [from 2:1]. The percentage of snaps when that pressure occurs is more than four times higher than sacks alone.”
So the healthy rotation of the Patriots pass rush will pay off serious dividends if they can keep the pressure up for the whole game.
To contextualize the drop in passer rating, quarterbacks that do not experience pressure play at a similar level to Tom Brady. If they are forced to move in the pocket, the level of play drops and compares to Jets quarterback Geno Smith. If they feel serious pressure, the play declines even further to levels comparable to Matt Cassel’s atrocious play over the last two seasons.
But my above theory on the Patriots ability to generate pressure with a rotation of pass rushers relies on the Patriots actually using those players to get after the quarterback. Last year, the Patriots did the exact opposite.
Per PFF, the Patriots rushed only three players a league-high 15.9% of the time, nearly twice the league average of 8.0%. This would be the exact opposite justification for hoarding pass rush specialists.
So far, the Patriots have done a nice job of rushing four on passing downs this preseason, using Anthony Johnson as a defensive tackle on the interior and the likes of Chris Long and Trey Flowers on the edge, and confounding the opposing quarterback by not tipping the hand as to whether Dont’a Hightower or Jamie Collins will add another body to the pass rush.
But the major storyline of whether or not the Patriots will regret trading Chandler Jones will be resolved in short order. If Sheard can play at the same level as last season, and if the defensive rotation with Long, Flowers, Ninkovich, McClellin, Mingo, Hightower, and Collins can play at their expected levels, then the Patriots defense is not just going to be fine- they’re going to dominate the league.