The New England Patriots defensive turnaround has been well documented by now. Over the first four weeks of the season, the defense ranked 31st or 32nd in points allowed, opposing passing yards, opposing passing touchdowns, opposing passer rating, and opposing first downs. They were terrible.
Since week 5, it’s been a different story. The Patriots have allowed 95 points, the best mark in the league; They rank 7th in opposing passer rating; They rank 2nd in opposing rushing touchdowns; They’re a respectable 14th in first downs allowed; They’ve given up 17 or fewer points in each of their past eight games. They’re pretty great overall.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia spoke with the media on Tuesday morning about the change in performance.
“Every year we start from scratch,” Patricia said. “We start in the spring and we try to build from there. I would say the season in general changes week to week or month to month, however you want to look at it, and coming out of training camp it's going to be different than what it is for the first month. The second month will be different than what it is the first month and I think it's a process for us to try to improve.
“We're always going to start with the fundamentals. I think I mentioned a little bit earlier and making sure that those get better as we go through the course of the year and become consistent and make sure you can rely on those being taken care of week in week out. I think some of the timelines that we work with here early in the season were definitely in a situation, especially early in the season, where things need to improve and some of that is going to have to take place during the season itself.
“I would say for us I think the guys just getting into the rhythm of the season helps too where your Monday is a Monday, your Tuesday is a Tuesday, your Wednesday is a Wednesday and your preparation stays consistent throughout the week really helps everyone settle into a schedule and a rhythm of preparing for the games. Sometimes that takes a little bit too.”
Patricia then gave credit “first and foremost” to the players for the hard work and preparation, before talking about how the team is more focused on week-to-week improvements instead of overall rankings. They want to be better this week than they were last week and their performances in week 1 and 2 don’t really matter.
“These guys do a great job understanding it's a process,” Patricia said about the defense. “So there's an [understanding of] ‘hey look, this is what it is this week. It's got to be better next week and everybody just bear down and let's keep working’ and that's the great thing about it is the work attitude that they come in with every day.”
Patricia also discussed the defense’s improvement on their fundamentals and how the overall experience playing together has led to incremental increases in production.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick thinks the defense has improved in every facet, and even if that growth is tiny it can have a big impact overall.
“Team defense,” Belichick highlighted as the main reason for the defense’s recent success. “Good team defense, or better team defense, tackling, not giving up big plays, playing better in situations, third down, red area. We're trying to do a lot of things better bit by bit. There's still a lot of work to do, but we've made some improvements; tackling.”
“Fundamentals have been better,” he added. “Just overall execution and awareness, seeing the plays. Sometimes that half step is the difference between making the play and giving it up. We have a lot of little things, a lot of guys working together. That's been important, too.”
The Patriots finish the season against the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills, and New York Jets. They rank 26th, 12th, 23rd, and 18th on offense in points scored, respectively. While no divisional game is easy, the Patriots are certainly in a position to extend their win-streak and their points allowed streak.
New England ranks 9th in the NFL with 223 points allowed through 12 games. While the Jacksonville Jaguars (178 points allowed) are out of reach, the seven teams ahead of the Patriots in the rankings are separated by 20 or fewer points allowed. It’s a very real possibility that the Patriots could finish the season as highly as the second-best team in the NFL.
Of course, if you ask Patricia or Belichick, they’ll just roll their eyes. They’re only focused on getting better, one week at a time.