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Why the Patriots unsexy defensive line is seriously underrated

Justis and Charles preview the Patriots 2017 season and show how the defensive line deserves more credit than it receives.

Two of the smartest football analysts on Twitter are Justis Mosqueda and Charles McDonald, so I’m obviously going to promote their 2017 season preview of the New England Patriots over at Setting The Edge.

They do a great job of analyzing the Patriots roster build and successes over the past decade (New England’s double-digit win differential is almost twice as large as any other team in the league).

“The Patriots have been dominant,” Mosqueda shrugs. “The Patriots were dominant last season. The Patriots will be dominant this season.”

On offense, the Patriots have an obviously elite passing attack that should be even better with the return of TE Rob Gronkowski, addition of WR Brandin Cooks, and 16 games of QB Tom Brady. If there were a weakness, it would be the inefficiency of the rushing attack.

Mosqueda notes that the Patriots rushed at the 5th highest rate in the league, but ranked “just 25th in yards per carry despite ranking 11th in TFL percentage.” This means that the offensive line wasn’t getting pushed back, but the rushing attack wasn’t really moving forward as much as it should have.

The Patriots have substituted RB LeGarrette Blount for RB Mike Gillislee and RB Rex Burkhead, in what should be a major upgrade for the rushing attack.

The New England defense is a little more interesting to evaluate, with the secondary seeing a possible upgrade from CB Logan Ryan to CB Stephon Gilmore, but it’s Mosqueda’s and McDonald’s attention on the Patriots run defense that really caught my attention.

McDonald did an excellent job of breaking down the Patriots defensive front, highlighting the team’s usage of the Bear Front, which squeezes both defensive tackles and one defensive end in the middle of the defensive formation to remove the opposing rushing attack up the gut and puts the linebackers close to the line of scrimmage to confuse the opposing offensive line and disrupt blocking schemes. I highly recommend watching the video at the top of this article.

But what makes the Patriots defensive front so underrated or “boring,” in Mosqueda’s terms, is their lack of “explosive plays.” The Patriots rank at the bottom of the league in “TFL percentage (28th), sack percentage (18th) and interceptions (28th).”

And yet the Patriots “defense finished first in fumble percentage, fifth in run percentage and eighth in yards per carry last season,” Mosqueda notes. “What the Patriots lacked in up-front penetration they made up for by simply suffocating running games and flying around the ball.”

The Patriots opted to give up highlight plays in favor of greater consistency on a snap-by-snap basis. Some teams are talented enough to generate highlight plays at a consistent level, but the Patriots didn’t feel comfortable enough, as evidenced by their trade of LB Jamie Collins and mid-season benchings of EDGE Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long.

In order to address that talent deficit, the Patriots added DL Lawrence Guy in free agency and drafted EDGE Derek Rivers and EDGE Deatrich Wise Jr. They also should improve at linebacker after they retained Dont’a Hightower, while the trio of Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, and Shea McClellin should benefit from having more experience in the Patriots defensive system.

We’ll see if the Patriots talent allows them to be both sexy and consistent in 2017, but I’m sure most would be happy with a repeat performance of 2016.