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Football Outsiders: Patriots have a big weakness on defense and it’s about the scheme

The Patriots pass rush could be a problem in 2017.

Football Outsiders releases an excellent preview of the upcoming season in their Almanac and the 2017 version is no different. Boston Sports Journal’s Greg Bedard writes the section on the New England Patriots and Football Outsiders editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz answered a few of our questions about the upcoming year. You can buy the Football Outsiders Almanac 2017 here.

The 2017 New England Patriots don’t have many flaws. The offense is one of the deepest and most talented in NFL history. The special teams unit will always be one of the best as long as Bill Belichick remains head coach. And the defense ranked #1 in points allowed in 2016- and some could make the argument that the unit improved heading into this upcoming season.

I asked Football Outsiders if they saw any weaknesses on the Patriots that deserved particular attention and Aaron Schatz listed a few of little concern.

“Kickoff and punt returns, but those weren’t really problems in past years and we can probably expect positive regression towards the mean,” Schatz wrote. “Broken tackles were a problem last year on defense, but that’s a brand new issue and also could just be a one-year fluke.”

The Patriots did not do a good job in the return game or as tacklers in 2016, but they’re historically outstanding in both categories and should not be cause for concern. In other words, the only regression the Patriots should expect is towards improvement, not decline.

One positional group did give Schatz pause and it’s the Patriots pass rush.

“I know the Patriots drafted two pass-rushers and traded for Kony Ealy, but I would expect the pass rush to still be a problem this year, average at best,” Schatz added.

The Patriots rush just three players more than any other team in the league, per the Almanac, and ranked in the bottom third of the league in rushing five or more players. This seems to imply that the Patriots weak pass rush is schematic and therefore intended, and not a deficiency in talent.

“In general, pass defense DVOA is better with more pass rushers, but the change is small and of course varies widely from team to team,” Schatz wrote. “I do think the Patriots give up more passes because they rush only three so often, but they usually don’t care; it tends to be a strategy because they’re trying to prevent big plays by playing as much pass coverage as possible, and they’re willing to give up steady little gains because they have faith in their offense to outscore the opponent even if the opponent is getting some steady little gains.

“Like most other teams, the Pats tend to rush only 3 about twice as often if it is the fourth quarter or the last two minutes of the second quarter, and they do it less often as opponents get closer to the goal line.”

The Patriots have built their offense and defense on successful long drives. On offense, that means being able to link up drives of 10+ plays that result in points. On defense, it means trusting that the defense can stop the opposition before they string 10 or more plays in a row.

The strategy obviously works as teams feel uncomfortable moving down the field 7 yards at a time in the passing game, instead feeling the need to pick up 20+ yards a pass, often resulting in zero actual yards and a wasted down, setting the team back on the drive.

I wanted to know if the Patriots had any tendencies with how many players they rushed. The Patriots tend to “mush rush” against mobile quarterbacks, which means they try to press the pocket, but prioritize maintaining gap integrity and bottling the quarterback in the pocket. There is a basic strategy for how the Patriots rush the passer.

But when it came to rushing three or four or more, Schatz said that there isn’t a set pattern based upon the relative experience of the opposing quarterback.

“I can tell you that based on 2016 this doesn’t seem to be about experience,” Schatz writes. “The quarterback the Pats rushed three against the most last year was Steelers backup Landry Jones (21 plays) but the quarterbacks they rushed three against the least were Colin Kaepernick (3) and Jared Goff (5). It’s sort of interesting -- they also didn’t rush three very often against Cleveland or Houston, or in the second Jets game, which they won 41-3.”

So while there isn’t a pattern based upon opposing experience, perhaps the Patriots just use their vanilla defense against weaker offenses, while the Steelers complex and top-tier unit deserves greater variability in play calling.

The weak New England pass rush remains one of the few valid concerns of the 2017 Patriots and the current head injury to Deatrich Wise doesn’t help the case. No matter how great the Patriots defensive backs may be, if the defensive line doesn’t generate pressure than some receiver will eventually get open.current head

But maybe the Patriots will simply be able to adjust their scheme and disrupt the backfield more than before.