Last year, the New England Patriots did everything well enough finish the regular season with a league-best 14-2 record and go on to win their fifth Super Bowl. The team featured one of the NFL’s best offenses, a defense that finished first in points allowed and was its usual stellar self on special teams.
In short: The Patriots were strong in every facet of the game – and they project to be the same heading into 2017. And while the usual offensive firepower and defensive opportunism will once again attract most of the attention, they are far from the only strengths of the defending world champions.
ESPN and Football Outsiders recently dug a little deeper and identified two others in an In$ider story called “Sneaky offensive and defensive strength for each team”. According to the analysis, the two strengths are as follows:
Offense: Field position
Between good special teams and a lack of turnovers, the Patriots constantly had strong field position. They started drives with an average of just 69.3 yards to go (second in NFL) and opponents started drives with an average of 75.1 yards to go (first in NFL).
This strength actually speaks more for the Patriots’ special teams and defensive abilities than the offense, although it undoubtedly helps quarterback Tom Brady and his unit. Still, the difference is noteworthy as it shows just how well all three phases of the game work together in New England and how their success is dependent on one another.
Defense: Preventing YAC
The Patriots led the NFL by allowing an average of just 4.0 yards after the catch. That may seem like it's been a staple of the Patriots' defense for a long time, but actually, it hasn't. New England ranked fifth in 2015 but average or worse from 2012-2014.
The Patriots have always prided themselves on playing fundamentally sound football. The ability to prevent yards after the catch is a perfect example for that. After all, it shows just how well at tackling New England’s defense is as a whole – from the defensive backs to the front-line players (linebacker Dont'a Hightower, for example, surrendered only 4.6 yards on the 24 catches he allowed).
On paper, the Patriots are the deepest team in the NFL right now. But it is little things like the two strengths mentioned above that turn a deep roster into a successful team. And if judged by the past, New England will be just that yet again in 2017.