The New England Patriots want to get better over the course of a season and they’re undeniably better on defense. The Patriots ranked #1 in points allowed over the course of the year, but they didn’t always play like a top defense as they gave up easy yards over the first half of the year. Head coach Bill Belichick noted a change in the middle of the year and gave credit to the players.
“Preparation, practice, execution,” Belichick said when asked about the cause for defensive improvements. “There’s no magic wand.”
When looking at Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, which takes quality of opponent into account, the Patriots showed clear improvement at each stage in the season. The defense ranked in the bottom 7 of the league for the first five weeks of the year, before improving to rank around 20th for the next five weeks.
Patriots QB Tom Brady shrugged when asked about the defensive performance at the start of the year: “Sometimes you don’t always have it figured out four games into the year.”
The Patriots had their bye week, they were demolished by the Seattle Seahawks offense, and then they hit a turning point. From week 11 through week 15, the Patriots defense played like a top 10 unit by DVOA. Over the past five weeks- including playoffs- the Patriots have been playing like the best defense in the NFL. Even Belichick had to tip his cap when asked about when he recognized that the Patriots had a championship caliber defense.
“As the season goes on and you get into games like we’ve had the last few weeks,” Belichick explained, “Miami was a playoff team; that was kind of like a playoff game. Baltimore, Denver were those big kind of games at the end of the season. Then the last two we’ve had – I think that’s where teams, players, units, I mean that’s where those levels [of championship qualities] really get identified because you’re playing against the very best teams, the very highest level of competition.”
The Patriots underwent many midseason adjustments on defense. They traded away LB Jamie Collins, they acquired LB Kyle Van Noy, they shuffled around their edge defenders, and they worked through ups and downs with CB Logan Ryan and CB Eric Rowe. The only consistency on defense was at defensive tackle, safety, and with CB Malcolm Butler.
“We made some changes during the year,” Belichick said. “We always make changes. It’s a process you go through. You put players in certain situations and certain groupings together and some work better than others, or maybe you see more potential in a certain player or group of players or combination of players than others, and you decide to move forward more with that or maybe you do it less because you don’t feel as good about it or players develop or improve or whatever it is and it’s just an ongoing process.
“It doesn’t happen overnight. There’s no switch that you can flip. It comes through a lot of hard work, a lot of meetings, a lot of communication on how we’re going to do things and then a lot of on the field execution at actually doing them at a good competitive level so that we can gain confidence in each other as a unit as to how that’s going to happen in a live game situation. Working hard, continuing to improve and guys taking whatever opportunities they get and either moving forward with it or possibly somebody else getting an opportunity and moving ahead of a player at a point in the season. That’s just a competitive situation.
“We’re going to play the best players and basically everybody will get a chance to do it somewhere along the line, and the players that play the best will play more and the players that don’t do it as well need to improve and need to change their playing time status or they’ll continue to not get the playing time behind somebody else who is performing better.”
The Patriots have finally settled on a starting defense and all of the players are stepping up at the necessary times. The offense is operating at a high level, which helps the defense from a field position standpoint.
What’s interesting is that the Patriots have been thriving down the stretch without a fully healthy LB Dont’a Hightower. If Hightower is available for the entire Super Bowl, then the Patriots defense could ascend to another level.