You know the drill by now. The New England Patriots rank 32nd in yards allowed per game and yards allowed per play and passing yards allowed per game and passing yards allowed per play and first downs allowed per game.
They rank 30th in points allowed per game. They rank 26th in rushing yards allowed per play and third down conversion percentage. They rank 24th in sack rate.
This isn’t a stellar defense, but don’t worry, Pro Football Focus says, it’s not that bad.
“For as catastrophic as some of the Patriots bottom line numbers have been, down to down this unit hasn’t been that bad,” PFF writes in their defensive rankings. “Most of the big plays have come on complete coverage busts which, though obviously a major issue, are likely to iron themselves out over a season.”
The Patriots have PFF’s 17th ranked defense, which is perfectly mediocre and good enough to make New England a contender if they can fix their mental errors in communication and alignment.
PFF notes that DT Malcom Brown is the Patriots best defensive starter, while LB Kyle Van Noy is the worst. They also give props to rookie edge defender Deatrich Wise, saying, “has been a major boost to the team’s pass-rush, with 19 total pressures on 140 pass-rushing snaps.”
According to PFF’s rating system, there are a whole lot of average players on the New England defense. Brown and Lawrence Guy have fairly similar average/above average grades (77-to-81 out of 100), as do edge defenders Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise, and defensive backs Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, and Malcolm Butler.
That leaves just three starters with below average grades. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore has a below-average grade of 66.9, while linebackers Dont’a Hightower (46.0) and Kyle Van Noy (38.1) are not grading well. When the linebackers are struggling in a Bill Belichick defense, then the whole unit is going to underperform.
We’ve noted Gilmore’s struggles over and over and now he’s dealing with another injury; hopefully he can pick up where he left off with his strong showing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As for the linebackers, much of Hightower’s low grade is from him playing on the edge in his first two games of the season and he’s moved back to playing more off-the-ball linebacker over the past two games. This tweak allows Kyle Van Noy to use his versatile skill set to generate more pressure and this could allow both players to get back to average (or better) grades.
The fact is simply that a lot of players are underperforming. Gilmore, McCourty, and Butler are capable of much more than what they’ve brought thus far in 2017, and the same applies to Hightower, Van Noy, Flowers, and Alan Branch. If any or all of these players can climb back to their historical level of play, then this defense will elevate from “hasn’t been that bad” to “actually pretty good.”