Entering the 2016 season, expectations were high for the New England Patriots’ defense. While the unit’s top pass rusher from the last few years – Chandler Jones – was traded in March, the team still had considerable depth across the board due to its core talent, offseason signings and trade acquisitions.
Yet, despite solid results in the early parts of the regular season, the Patriots’ defense did not quite live up to its supposed preseason potential. They failed to generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks, struggled on third down, and had multiple coverage breakdowns each game. And on top of that, the team decided to trade a player seen as a cornerstone of the unit in the middle of the season: linebacker Jamie Collins.
The move apparently did send a message to the rest of the team and was a turning point of sorts. New England’s defense began to display better confidence and chemistry afterwards, while finally playing with emotion. Even though it still had and has some shortcomings, the unit grew into one of the more consistent in the NFL. As a result, it was able to finish the 2016 regular season as the top ranked scoring defense in the league – only the second time in franchise history that this has happened (2003).
Overall, the Patriots allowed only 15.6 points per game – third fewest of the Bill Belichick era (2006, 2003). For comparison, the second-ranked New York Giants gave up an average of 17.2 points each contest (after subtracting one pick-six and one safety by the team’s offense). New England also leads the field in terms of points given up per drive with 1.39 (the Giants give up 1.40).
Ultimately, points scored and surrendered is all that matters in football and the Patriots have been the best in that regard as their league-leading +191 scoring differential shows. However, statistics never tell the whole story; context is also important when it comes to evaluating success on the gridiron. And said context has been favorable to Matt Patricia’s squad, which at times benefitted from its opponents, playing alongside mistake-limiting offense and special teams units, and starting field position.
But, then again, defense is one of three equal parts contributing to a team’s success or failure as all three live off each other to a degree. And as such, the Patriots’ defense has done a tremendous job during the regular season when it comes to taking advantage of opportunities and of opponents. They were able to step up when asked to carry the team and to limit the success of opposing offenses, no matter their firepower (something that has not always been the case in the past).
In short: They did their jobs, and the number one ranking in scoring reflects just that.