After receiving plenty of preseason hype, the New England Patriots defense started the 2017 season on the wrong foot: On opening night against the Kansas City Chiefs, the unit gave up 42 points while also surrendering a whooping 537 yards. It was a forgettable performance especially because coordinator Matt Patricia's squad failed to show one of its typical core strengths, defending the big play.
Against the Chiefs' offense, the Patriots allowed three plays of 40+ yards – including two scores – and five plays of 20+ yards, three of which went for touchdowns. It was pretty bad; the unit struggled with communication, basic coverage concepts and tackling. It also struggled against the pass and the run as Kansas City had two rushes of 20+ yards to go along with three passes. In short: It was a terrible performance.
Things did not get a lot better the following week as the Patriots allowed the New Orleans Saints to torch them for three plays gaining more than 30 yards, and a total of seven gaining more than 20. Things did look a bit different, though, as New England surrendered only one big play run and did not surrender a big play touchdown – some minor steps taken at least against the rush and the score.
And since week two, the unit has continued to slightly improve in certain areas as a look at this graphic shows:
As can be seen, the Patriots have gotten better since week two when it comes to stopping big-yardage plays. And while a) week six's matchup against the New York Jets is the big exception and b) the team still gives up the occasional 40+ yard play, New England's defense is trending towards the right direction when looking at the big picture – especially in two categories: stopping big runs and preventing big scores.
On opening day, as mentioned above, Matt Patricia's unit allowed two rushes of 20+ yards; one of which went for a touchdown. The defense has improved drastically since then: Over the six weeks that followed, the unit gave up only two more runs of 20+ yards: A 28-yarder in week two and a 21-yarder last Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. Neither play resulted in a score, by the way.
Speaking of scoring, the Patriots have also been able to limit big-play scores since their blowout loss against the Chiefs in week one. While the team surrendered three 20+ yard touchdowns in week one, it allowed only three more throughout the next six games – only one of which from 30+ yards out (as opposed to opening night, when two 75-plus-yarders were scored against it).
This is true to New England's usual “bend but don't break” mantra: The defense, like it failed to do on opening day, has returned to forcing opposing offenses to consistently string plays together in order to achieve long scoring drives – which in turn gives an offense that has a more vertical element to it when compared to years past more time to catch its collective breath between drives.
Of course, this plan is not yet working perfectly. After all, as the graphic above shows, New England has allowed plays of 40+ yards in the three consecutive weeks before Sunday's game against Atlanta. Still, the unit – if slowly – appears to be trending in the right direction; just in time for a talented Los Angeles Chargers offense that has found some big play success of it own over the course of the season.