The Patriots’ defense is an enigma. For 8 straight weeks, the scoreboard reflected a dominating defense. New England hadn’t given up more than 17 points in any game. But any objective viewer would have to admit the Patriots D hasn’t passed the “eye test” of a dominant defense. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a defense flirting with disaster.
Prior to the Miami game, the Patriots’ defense ranked 9th in points per drive, but 32nd in yards per drive. They ranked 2nd in points per red zone trip, but 32nd in red zone attempts per game. They ranked 2nd in rushing touchdowns allowed per game, but 32nd in yards per rush attempt. The defense has benefited from a terrific average starting line of scrimmage (1st), which is good because they ranked just 29th in 3-and-outs per drive.
This sort of paradoxical data has a name: “bend but don’t break”. The New England defense has worn this label for years; never dominant but always effective. Except previous versions of the defense have had strengths in areas other than red zone defense. The 2015 defense ranked 1st in 3-and-outs per game (currently 29th) and the 2016 team finished 5th in total run DVOA. The 2017 version doesn’t really do anything well outside of the red zone. That’s considered complimentary football when the offense is playing well, but it’s a dangerously low margin style of football.
What we witnessed in Miami was a low margin defense getting exposed. The offense sucked, but the defense wasn’t that different from what it always is, save for bad tackling. The Patriots gave up a ton of yards in the 1st half but were predictably resilient in the red area. They forced two field goals on early drives and should have forced a third if not for Jordan Richards’ impressively bad missed sack. New England entered the game giving up 36.3 yards per drive and gave up 30.2 to Miami. They entered giving up 5.9 yards per play and gave up 5.1. They averaged 5.1 yards per rush and gave up 4.0. Even in the passing game, where it seemed like Jay Cutler was unstoppable, the Patriots gave up 6.1 yards per pass after averaging 6.8 on the season. This was not an abnormally bad performance by the defense.
To be sure, New England’s defense did play below average in some areas. Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, and Jonathon Jones combined to allow a passer rating of 127.3 on Monday night compared to 23.2 in the week 12 matchup, per Pro Football Focus and Boston Sports Journal. Elandon Roberts and Patrick Chung, who combined for just 2 missed tackles in the running game all year, each missed tackles in the backfield that led to huge gains by Kenyan Drake.
Ultimately, though, the complimentary defense had nothing to compliment.The Patriots’ offense couldn’t extend drives and only had 23 minutes of possession, 8 minutes below their season average. Turnovers gave Miami favorable field position. The New England defense entered the game leading the NFL in red zone takeaways, but it’s unsustainable to rely on terrible throws (Tyrod Taylor’s interception from week 13) or bizarre plays (Austin Sefarian-Jenkins’ fumble) every game. The defense didn’t benefit from great field position or sufficient rest that the offense typically provides, and they didn’t get lucky with turnovers or missed field goals in the red zone. That’s a recipe for disaster for the defense, even against a bad Miami offense.
In a game where the offense struggled to stay on the field and score points, the defense couldn’t rise to the occasion. Would Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy have helped? Sure. Flowers is New England’s best defensive lineman and would have helped the pass rush. And even though Van Noy is wildly inconsistent, his athleticism and communication were sorely missed.
But Miami’s game plan was flawless and revealing; I’m not sure having both players would have changed the outcome. The Dolphins moved the ball consistently by spreading out New England and challenging their athleticism with shallow crossing routes. They exploited some favorable matchups (ex: Roberts vs. Drake) in the passing game to gain some chunk yards to keep New England’s safeties honest. Kansas City had a similar approach in week 1 with their bunch formations and crossing routes.
Teams are going to have bad games and New England has historically struggled in Miami. Let’s give Bill Belichick and co. the benefit of the doubt that they’ll respond positively to the Dolphins debacle. The offense will be fine with Gronk, and the defense should be better as they get healthier. But for those who believed the defensive issues were “fixed”, this game should serve as a jolt of reality. With no clear defensive strength outside of the red zone, the margin of error is slim.
At some point in the playoffs, the defense will need to be more than just complimentary. There is enough talent and experience, especially in the secondary, to improve. But with the critical matchup against Pittsburgh on Sunday, that improvement needs to happen now.