The New England Patriots defense improved over the second quarter of the season after a disastrous opening four weeks, but there’s still plenty of work to do. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia spoke with the media to discuss how the Patriots defense will approach the bye week and the second half of the season, how he coaches improvements, and how the team evolves over the course of the season.
What the Patriots will do during the bye week
“I think in the early part of the year you're still obviously trying to figure out a lot of things – preseason is shorter, training camp is shorter,” Patricia said. “Like I had mentioned, this [bye] is a great week for us to go back and work on fundamentals and really kind of take a look at just the basics again for us because as we push forward we're going to lose some practice time here with pads and things like that where when you get to the end of the year, and hopefully the weather turns a little bit here worse for us, which is always good defensively, then it's really going to go back to those fundamentals – hat placement, hand placement, tackling, all of the basics.
“The better you can do those towards the end of the year then usually the better off you are.”
What Patricia decides to coach up defensively
“We expect to win and we're always trying to win,” Patricia said. “The goal is to get better. What are the areas we need to get better in? And I'm going to coach those up as hard as I can to make sure that those improve.”
“I just think it's important for us depending on who we see,” Patricia added about changing the defensive focus on a weekly basis. “Different weeks I have different points of emphasis based on who we're going to play. Sometimes it's our tackling has got to be better or our run game has got to be better, our pass game has got to be better, our communication has got to be better. It's just maybe things that I see that an opponent does that is a little bit tricky or hard and just as a point of emphasis.”
How Patricia coaches the defense on these factors
“I would say in kind of that realm of trying to improve when you look at really complex things that you're trying to get better, if you can boil them down to maybe one or two bullet points of like ‘hey if we can just do this and this then that whole area will improve.’” Patricia said. “That's probably the best way for us. I think if we try to just say everything needs to improve then you're really not going to get anything done. So we look at some real specific situations or areas or calls.
“It's different every year, what is good and what is not good, so you want to make sure that you're conscious of that and you're not just following the same script you followed last year where it's like ‘hey at this point last year we had to really work on this’ because it's not the same. So when you look at it you look at you look at it from that standpoint.
“It certainly starts with me first. There's a lot that I need to get better on and improve and I tell the guys that. We try to explain that ‘hey this is why we do this’ or ‘this is what we did here’ and ‘this is where it needs to get better’ and then we all hold each other accountable for that. So that's where is starts and then it goes down into them and what they do and we try to take a good look at it from not only scheme or individual players but how we attack maybe the week or a meeting or a certain situation that if there's a better way that we could teach it or get the information out there.”
When Patricia decides to press for improvements
“Our identity is just trying to get better each week and I think we're at one point in the season,” Patricia said when asked about the defensive identity. “I think what's great is our guys understand there's different points of the year where we always try to increase and step up our level of play.
“Certainly the halfway point is one, coming out of September is another one, Thanksgiving is another big one for us where you're just trying to increase your productivity, your communication, your fundamentals, your awareness and your overall play.
“So that's all we're pushing towards is just trying to make sure that we're improving each week and showing some consistency in what we do. It's hard. Week in week out we see different offenses, different challenges come up, different players that are a problem, quarterbacks. So with all those variables that come into effect and then try to see some consistency and some improvement week in week out is the biggest challenge for us.”
So with the bye week and the halfway point of the season coming together at the same time, it’s fair to assume that the Patriots are focusing on their fundamentals and are expecting the defense to “step up” its level of play for the next month until Thanksgiving.
And while Patricia says there are small changes to the defensive focus every week, there are some big complex changes that need to take place, too. Free safety Devin McCourty noted that communication has been a major focus for the team over the first eight weeks and that should continue into the second half of the year.
“We talked about today just limiting big plays and not giving it all up in one play,” McCourty said about the defensive communications. “It’s something we want to get better at. Some of that comes from communication. I think it’s obviously a lot better from the beginning of the season, but there’s still room to improve. I think when communication goes well, usually, you give yourselves a chance.”
With communication an easy choice for defensive improvement over the second half of the year, and with those communication problems leading to big plays, I’ll go in a different direction.
The Patriots defense really needs to work on improving their first down defense. They’ve allowed an average of 7.41 yards on first down, by far the most in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts ranking 31st with an average allowance of 6.76 yards per play. The league average is 5.32 yards per first down play.
New England ranks 31st against the run on first down, giving up 5.32 yards per rush. The league average is 3.97 yards per rush on first down so the Patriots could improve by a whole yard per first down play and still be below average. They have also allowed a first down run on 18.7% of first down rushes, the second-worst rate in the league.
But it’s not just the run that’s a problem. They Patriots also rank 31st against the pass on first down, giving up 9.07 yards per pass, one of three teams along with the Colts and San Francisco 49ers (two of the three worst teams in the NFL) to allow more than 8 yards per pass play on first down.
The league average is 6.83 yards per pass play on first down, so New England is more than two yards worse than the league average. The Patriots have allowed a first down on 38.8% of first down passes, the second-worst rate in the league.
And even though the defense has made minor improvements over the second quarter of the season, they’re still struggling. From weeks 5-8, the Patriots rank 30th in yards allowed on first down at 6.65 yards per play, along with 27th-ranked 4.69 yards allowed per run on first down and a 25th-ranked 8.27 yards allowed per pass on first down. They’re definitely better, but they’re still not good.
So it’s not just becoming better against the run or the pass; they have to get better in all facets on first down to force opposing offenses into longer distance situations and to give the third down defense a chance to give the ball back to the offense.