New England Patriots quarterbacks were sacked a mere 24 times in the 2016 regular season, the third lowest amount of the Bill Belichick era. The Patriots allowed just 21 sacks in 2007 and an astounding 18 sacks in 2009, an amount only since bested by Peyton (2010 and 2014) and Eli Manning (2010).
The Patriots pass protection is a far cry from last year, when they allowed 38 sacks in arguably the worst performance by a Patriots offensive line since Tom Brady became quarterback in 2001.
While most Patriots fans (and even offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels) would credit the return of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, Belichick attributes the success to a mosaic of offensive production.
“I think there are a lot of factors that go into it,” Belichick said about the pass blocking on Monday morning. “I think [quick release and improved line talent] are two things of many. Certainly playing from ahead is helpful. Receivers, backs, tight ends, whatever it happens to be, are open that have space and give the quarterback somebody to throw to so we can release the ball quickly is a part of it.
“First and second-down, as it relates to third-down, which is where usually the majority of sacks occur – not certainly all – but somewhere in the 50-percent range generally are on third-down. So staying out of the longer yardage situations minimizes that. Those third-down sacks where you have to hold the ball, and maybe a little more willing to hold the ball on third-down because if you don’t get it you’re going to punt it anyway.
“I’d say all of those things are a part of it. They all contribute somewhat to it. I don’t know what the exact percentage of it would be. I wouldn’t put any of them necessarily above the other ones. They’re all a part of it.”
The Patriots boosted their offensive line talent with the addition of rookie LG Joe Thuney, while C David Andrews and RG Shaq Mason are greatly improved in their second year in the NFL. OTs Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon are completely different players in Scarnecchia’s system that capitalizes on their length and frames better than under the prior line coach.
Credit also goes to the skill players as WR Julian Edelman, RB James White, and all the other targets have done an excellent job of getting open quickly and allowing Brady to get rid of the ball before pressure can hit home.
Belichick also draws attention to the Patriots game script; Roughly 40% of all sacks come on third down and sacks are nearly 70% more likely on third down than on first or second down. Belichick is arguing that the success of RB LeGarrette Blount gaining positive yardage on first and second down supposedly has allowed Brady to have an easier time on third down since opposing teams are unable to predict if the play call will be a run or a pass.
The reality is a little different. The Patriots are not converting first downs at an increased pace in 2016. The offense has converted first downs on roughly 30% of plays in each of the past three years and the rate of third down plays is actually greater this year than in 2014 or 2015.
Brady is just better.
In 2014, Brady completed 60.7% of his passes on third down, with a passer rating of 96.9. He slightly improved his numbers in 2015, completing 63.4% of his passes for a rating of 105.2.
This year, Brady is completing 66.7% of his third down passes for an incredible rating of 127.7. It doesn’t hurt that back-up Jimmy Garoppolo was even better, completing 73.7% of his passes for a rating of 141.3.
What might make this more impressive is how hyper-focused Brady has been on Julian Edelman on third down. Edelman has received 49 third down targets in 2016, well ahead of James White (28) or Danny Amendola (18). The top targets in 2015- Amendola (28), Rob Gronkowski (25)- and 2014- Gronkowski (37), Brandon LaFell (29), Edelman (28)- were much closer together.
Edelman has more yards from scrimmage than any other wide receiver or tight end over the second half of the season and has continued to rise up to the occasion when Brady gives him opportunities in crunch time. Edelman has converted 25 third downs over the course of the season, which trails only Cardinals RB David Johnson (28) and Buccaneers WR Mike Evans (28). 35 of his 49 third down targets have come over the final eight games, an incredibly high usage rate that leads the league over that span.
There’s no question that the blocking has improved, which means that Brady has more time and is more comfortable in the pocket. But Brady deserves credit for increasing his accuracy, despite not having Gronkowski on the field.