The New England Patriots is still regarded as one of the weakest in the NFL for good reasons. They allow a lot of yards and they let those yards convert into points for the other team. They rank 32nd in yards allowed per play and 25th in red zone success rate.
Some can point to poor communication and play in the secondary as a problem. Others can highlight the temporary loss of Dont’a Hightower at the linebacker position. And more can say that Alan Branch and the Patriots defensive line haven’t been pulling their considerable weight.
The New England Patriots are ungodly awful at backfield penetration this season on defense (0=NFL average) pic.twitter.com/u4UPNAj99L— Copa Mundial Justo (@JuMosq) October 11, 2017
This table represents how many negative plays defenses generate through sacks and tackles for loss and it reveals that the Patriots have forced 18 fewer tackles behind the line of scrimmage than the average NFL team, “almost two and a half times worse than the next [lowest-ranked] team.”
The Patriots defense has forced just 23 plays for negative or zero yards this year. They are better than only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets, Tennessee Titans, and New York Giants at generating sacks this year and they are twice as bad at forcing tackles for loss than the 31st ranked Chicago Bears.
The 2017 Patriots defense is on pace for just 74 negative or zero yard plays, far shy of the 110 the defense generated in 2016 when they were also one of the ten worst in the league. The worst-ranked defense in 2016 was the Detroit Lions and even they forced 95 such plays.
And it’s the defense’s inability to force stops against the run that is the most striking difference and reveals why the Patriots are appearing so much worse on defense in 2017.
The 2017 Patriots are on pace for 42 negative or zero yard plays against the pass, which represents a minor and insignificant decline from the 46 plays against the pass they forced in 2016. But in 2016, 41.8% of the defense’s negative or zero yard plays came against the pass, versus 56.5% in 2017- and that means the run defense isn’t doing its job.
The 2016 Patriots forced stops on 64 run plays over the course of the year, double the 32 stops the 2017 Patriots are on pace for. That’s an astounding decline and it’s linked to all of the changes in the New England defensive front seven, particularly the disappearance of Alan Branch.
Branch was responsible for a whopping 13 of the Patriots defensive run stops in 2016 and he has zero in 2017. Trey Flowers also picked up 9 stops in 2016 and has just 1 this year. The only defensive players on a similar pace to their 2016 production are Malcom Brown and Elandon Roberts and they have just 2 stops apiece in 2017.
And only 3 of the Patriots 10 run stops have been for negative yards- the other 7 have been 0-yard gains- which puts the defense on pace for just 10 negative yard run stops in 2017, a huge drop from the 27 negative runs forced in 2016.
This decline in run defense leads to easy early down yardage for opposing teams, setting up favorable second- and third-down opportunities for shots down the field. In 2016, the Patriots run defense allowed just 3.8 yards per carry on first down and just 17 first downs all season. The 2017 Patriots are allowing 5.9 yards per carry on first down and have already allowed 15 first downs runs.
Despite opposing teams not running the ball any more on first down- 46% in 2016; 43% in 2017- the Patriots linebackers now have to be just as concerned against the run as they are about the pass, where previously they could trust the defensive front to stop the run. This opens up vulnerabilities to the play action and now opposing teams average 9.6 yards per pass attempt on first down, a huge increase from 6.5 in 2016. In a chicken-versus-egg situation, the Patriots can’t help their run defense without hurting their coverage, and they can’t help their coverage without hurting their run defense.
Teams are now averaging 7.83 yards on first down against the Patriots, up from 5.08 in 2016, and teams facing second-and-2 are far more likely to convert a first down (~59%) than teams facing second-and-5 (~39%).
Where’s the fix? Other than 2016 Alan Branch walking through the door, the Patriots “simply” need everyone to start executing at a higher level. They can’t rely on veterans like Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, and Jabaal Sheard on the edge anymore, so rookies Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler and recent acquisition Cassius Marsh need to step up. These are all a part of the growing pains that the Patriots signed up for when they remodeled their entire defensive line with new faces this past offseason.
Hopefully the return of Dont’a Hightower in the heart of the Patriots defense can have a trickle down effect to settle down the rest of the front seven, but he alone can’t solve all of the defensive problems. As cliche as it sounds, every Patriots defender has to do their job for the unit to succeed and their collective inexperience in the system- from rookies Wise and Butler to veterans Marsh and Stephon Gilmore- has been the root of the defensive weakness in 2017.
Hopefully the defense will make major strides as they grow comfortable with their respective responsibilities.