The New England Patriots are regarded as having one of the worst defenses in the NFL, but they’re facing a contender for that title on Sunday in Mexico City. While the Patriots rank 30th in defensive DVOA by Football Outsiders, which compares teams to the historical average, the Oakland Raiders rank 32nd.
The Raiders pass defense is particularly bad, ranking 32nd in DVOA at 49.0%, which means they’re nearly half the quality of an average defense. Even the Patriots pass defense, which has had its struggles, ranks 30th at 33.8% DVOA. The Raiders overall defense peaked at 27th in DVOA in weeks 2 and 4, but have ranked 32nd for the past two weeks, while the Patriots climbed from 32nd in week 8, to 31st in week 9, and 30th in week 10.
A big problem for Oakland’s defense is that they rank last in takeaways and have not recorded an interception over the first ten weeks of the season, the first team in NFL history to accomplish such a feat. The Raiders also rank 31st in the NFL in getting their hands on passes, according to Pro Football Focus.
Part of the Raiders’ problem in the secondary is their loss of rookie first round cornerback Gareon Conley to the injured reserve and top cornerback David Amerson to a foot injury; Amerson did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday and is likely to miss the game on Sunday.
Amerson ranks last of the 116 qualifying cornerbacks in the NFL in passer rating allowed in coverage at 156.3, while his teammate and nickel corner Sean Smith ranks second-to-last at 133.6. Oh, and Dexter McDonald, the cornerback that is starting while Amerson is sidelined, ranks third-to-last with a passer rating allowed of 128.0. It’s not a particularly strong depth chart.
T.J. Carrie is the other full time starter at cornerback and he moves into the slot in the nickel package as Smith takes the outside. He’s a good cornerback and the Patriots will likely sacrifice a receiver like Phillip Dorsett to allow for favorable match-ups with Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola against the other cornerbacks. Carrie still ranks 68th out of 116 with 96.3 passer rating allowed, so it’s not like he has to be avoided, but Tom Brady always looks for the path of least resistance.
Strong safety Karl Joseph is talented and could draw the assignment of Rob Gronkowski for much of the day, but free safety Reggie Nelson is really struggling in coverage, ranking 81st of 83 safeties in Pro Football Focus’ rankings. I would expect the Patriots to test the Raiders deep, early and often to get Joseph out of the box against the run and to target Nelson with Cooks over the top.
The Patriots have too many targets on offense and the Raiders lack the depth to compete against either receivers or tight ends or running backs. They rank in the bottom 10 of every coverage category by Football Outsiders and in the bottom five of every coverage match-up other than passes up the middle (25th), to the short right (24th), and passes to the #2 receiver (24th)- all usually with Carrie in coverage.
The Patriots can use three receivers with Cooks, Amendola, and Dorsett and get a favorable match-up with two of the three cornerbacks. They can use two tight ends with Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett or Dwayne Allen and have one player covered by a weaker safety or linebacker. The running backs should be able to run free in the second level.
Oakland has really struggled against the pass this year. I don’t expect that to change on Sunday.