Over the first four weeks of the 2017 NFL season, the New England Patriots defense was one of the worst in the league, if not the 32nd ranked unit.
The Patriots allowed 32.0 points per game, which ranked 31st ahead of only the hapless Indianapolis Colts. They allowed a whopping 7.16 yards per play, by far the worst in the NFL. Opposing teams completed 69.7% of their pass attempts (28th) for 1,296 passing yards (32nd) and 11 touchdowns (tied for worst with the Tennessee Titans). They had just 8 sacks on the year (t-27th) and allowed a passer rating of 116.5 (32nd).
New England’s run defense was little better. They allowed 531 rushing yards (26th) for 5.06 yards per carry (31st). No matter how you sliced it, the Patriots were in contention for Worst Defense in the NFL.
Now, sure, they faced an offensive gauntlet of the Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Houston Texans, and Carolina Panthers, teams that boast a combined record of 18-11. The Chiefs and Saints currently rank second and third in the NFL (behind the Patriots) in yards per game, while the Texans rank 10th. The Texans, Chiefs, and Saints rank 1st, 3rd, and 6th in points per game.
But the Patriots were bad, giving up big play after big play, with their 11 plays of 30+ yards allowed being the worst in the NFL over the first four weeks of the season. They had miscommunications left and right and it was fair to wonder if this was going to be the worst defense of the Bill Belichick era.
How long ago that seems now as the talent on the Patriots nicked and injured defense has finally surfaced.
New England allowed just 12.75 points per game over the past four weeks, which is the 3rd best in the NFL behind only the Los Angeles Rams (11 PAPG) and the Jacksonville Jaguars (12 PAPG); both the Rams and Jaguars only played three games to affect their odds of having a bad day. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 62.2% of their passes (17th) for 267 yards per game (23rd) and 1.25 touchdowns per game (12th) for a passer rating of 86.8 (12th). They’ve cut their 30+ yard plays allowed down to 6.
The defense still isn’t perfect. They’ve allowed 6.01 yards per play over the past four weeks, which ranks 28th, and their 5.07 yards per rushing attempt allowed ranks 30th.
But they’ve also still played pretty good offenses, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons ranking 4th and 5th in yards per game; when you remove their games against the Patriots, New England’s first four opponents average 25.7 points per game, while the latter four average 21.6 PPG.
So even if 4.1 points per game can be attributed to the declining quality of the opposing offense, that doesn’t fully explain the decrease in 19.25 points allowed. The Patriots defense has made a marked improvement.
New England’s defense started the 2017 season at the bottom of the scrap heap, but they’ve finally climbed back towards the pack- they rank 18th in points allowed per game now- and could maybe even be considered “above average” again.
They’re not an elite defense like the Jaguars (that’s a weird sentence to write) or Rams (also weird) or Pittsburgh Steelers or Denver Broncos. But they’re back in that next tier of “good defenses” which always proves to be enough for the Patriots to be considered the class of the NFL and a Super Bowl contender.