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The criticisms of the Patriots defense are the same every year, but it’s never been this bad

The Patriots defense has to get on the same page.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve heard this story before. The New England Patriots sign a marquee press-man cornerback that played under Rex Ryan, but start the season running a lot of zone coverages in a questionable coaching decision. The defense eventually starts playing more man, the unit improves, and the team goes on to win the Super Bowl.

“One quarter into the season, we've seen the Patriots take a super conservative approach with All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis,” Pats Pulpit’s Greg Knopping wrote in 2014. “He's played a lot of soft man and zone which has left him vulnerable to short crossing routes and hitch plays...That's not acceptable. That's not what the Patriots are playing Revis $12 million this year to do. The Patriots need to be aggressive in their usage of Darrelle Revis. They need to allow him to take the opponent's best receiver in press man coverage as they did with a less talented, but capable cornerback in Aqib Talib a year ago.”

Revis and the defense allowed 33 points to the Miami Dolphins and 41 to the Kansas City Chiefs over the first four weeks of the year. They finished the regular season ranking 8th in points allowed.

There were similar criticisms to the Patriots defense to start 2016, too. New England was fortunate enough to face a string of awful quarterbacks that were unable to capitalize on the weak Patriots defense, but as the team benched Logan Ryan and traded Jamie Collins, the coaches had to simplify the play calls for new players like Kyle Van Noy and Eric Rowe to adjust and make plays.

Eventually Ryan rebounded, the coaching staff settled on their desired match-ups in the secondary, and every player started to execute at a higher level. The Patriots also won the Super Bowl in 2016.

We always go through the same circuit of criticisms and coping mechanisms after the Patriots defense gets picked apart.

  • First, we argue that the Patriots need to simplify their defense so the newer players can settle in.
  • Second, we say that the defense should become even more simplified by playing only man coverage because it’s the zone defense that’s the problem.
  • Third, we realize that the Patriots have been terrible in both man and zone and that it’s not the play call that’s the problem, but the execution of the players and that nothing can be made more simple.
  • Fourth, the players eventually get on the same page for the second half of the season and they’re able to execute the simple plays that were failing in the opening weeks.
  • And fifth, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is then able to add more wrinkles into the playbook and the defense suddenly becomes competitive enough to win in the postseason.

That happens every year, whether it’s with Devin McCourty or Darrelle Revis or Stephon Gilmore at cornerback. It’s the problem whether it’s Jerod Mayo or Dont’a Hightower or Kyle Van Noy at linebacker.

Last year, we spoke with former Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham for his sense of the New England defense after the loss to the Seattle Seahawks and his response is still applicable.

“You've got to get out of these soft zones, you've heard that one, right?,” Chatham said. “No, you just gotta play the zones better. It's not about man-to-man. Let's take a look. They actually played a lot of [man coverage] and there were breakdowns there."

“A lot of these calls were appropriate, they just weren't ran well at all,” he added. “If they executed what was called, [the play calling] was absolutely appropriate and fine.”

The Patriots defenders are simply not executing the call. The Panthers and the Texans noticed that New England struggled against bunch formations and the solution simply isn’t “play man coverage.” The entire point of the bunch formation is to generate quick separation from the defender by creating traffic. Dropping into their respective zones is the best way to deter opposing quarterbacks from throwing into bunches.

But when Stephon Gilmore makes the decision to follow the same player at Eric Rowe, that’s not a play-calling mistake. That’s a mental error by the player that isn’t fixed by changing the play from zone to man the next time they face a bunch formation. That’s just something Gilmore has to improve upon over the course of the year.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick touched on the problem last year after the same loss to the Seahawks, by arguing that verbal communication on the field is not reliable due to crowd noise, and that instead players need to be able to read the opposing receivers and know their role, just like how Tom Brady and his receivers need to be able to read a defense in the same fashion.

Once these defenders start diagnosing the opposing offense in the same way, then this defense will improve.

But even with the confidence that the defense will get better, it is also important to note that the Patriots are improving from their worst standing of the Belichick era.

The 121 defensive points allowed is easily the most by the Patriots through 4 games dating back to 2000. Opposing teams are averaging 7.16 yards per play against the 2017 Patriots, which rivals the 2011 Patriots (7.21 yards allowed per play) for the worst under Belichick through four games; those two seasons are the only times where the Patriots have allowed more than 5.90 yards per play. Teams are also averaging 5.06 yards per carry against the Patriots (second-worst after 2002).

Opposing quarterbacks have completed 69.7% of their passes (worst under Belichick through 4 games), 1,296 passing yards (second-worst after 2011), 11 touchdown passes (worst), and just 3 interceptions (tied for fourth-fewest). Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 116.5, by far the worst of the Belichick era, with the 2005 Patriots (92.6) having the second-worst. That mark of 116.5 is the 8th worst start for any defense dating back to 2000, and joins teams like the 2006-09 Detroit Lions with regards to terrible play.

In other words, the Patriots defense is on par with the 2011 Patriots in terms of raw production, but without the ability to force turnovers. And if New England can’t force turnovers, then opposing teams will rack up field goals at a minimum, and those kicks add up over the course of a game. Those 2011 Patriots allowed more than 28 points just once all year- week 3 against the Buffalo Bills, of all teams- while the 2017 Patriots have allowed opposing teams to crack 30 points in three of their four games.

But as we said on our podcast, if the Patriots defense can make the smallest improvement and hold opposing teams to 28 points per game for the next quarter of the season, then maybe they can build upon that and start to make strides as a unit. Even the worst scoring defense under Bill Belichick (2002) only allowed an average of 21.6 points per game and it’s hard to see this team remaining more than 10 points worse over the course of the year.

So this defense might never be great, or even good. But it will get better as we’ve seen time and time again.