The New England Patriots started off the season as the favorite to win the Super Bowl and according to oddsmakers, they’re still on top of the league. But if you look towards the advanced statistics, the Patriots are a mere 2nd according to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, behind the Kansas City Chiefs.
It took a small miracle -- converting second-and-20 and third-and-18 against the Texans -- for the Patriots to avoid starting the season 1-2 with a pair of losses at home,” Barnwell argues. “Something is wrong in New England. I won't keep you in suspense: It's the defense. The Patriots rank dead last in defensive DVOA through three weeks, and it's not particularly close. The Patriots have a 35.4 percent DVOA, while the 31st-ranked Saints are closer to the Falcons in 20th than they are to the Patriots in last. They rank last in points allowed, too (31.7 per game). It has been a brutal start.”
Barnwell highlights how the Texans offense, lowly regarded by advanced metrics, had no problem torching the Patriots secondary and how the coaching decision to not pressure the quarterback could become an issue.
The Patriots have shown an ability to get after the quarterback with both Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise, but “the Patriots have pressured opposing quarterbacks on just 22.8 percent of their dropbacks, which ranks 26th in the league,” according to Barnwell. When the Patriots generate pressure, opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 43.4, which ranks 9th and is a great sign.
But when the Patriots fail to generate pressure on those other 77.2% of the snaps, they “are allowing a league-worst 127.8 passer rating without pressure,” Barnwell writes. “For reference, Tom Brady's passer rating when unpressured last season was 125.6. Turning every quarterback you face into a Hall of Famer seems like a difficult way to win week after week.”
So the Patriots have been successful when they pressure the quarterback, but the problem is that they don’t tend to sell out to get the quarterback. According to Pro Football Focus’ Louie Benjamin, the Patriots failed to record a pressure on Texans QB Deshaun Watson at any point faster than 2.4 seconds “and 47% of the pressure came in 3 seconds or more.”
In other words, part of the Patriots lack of pressure has been intentional as they try to keep the mobile quarterbacks in the pocket.
But a further problem is that when the quarterbacks stay in the pocket, they’re still finding open receivers. The only way the “low pressure” strategy works is if the coverage is outstanding, which has decidedly not been the case this year.
Devin McCourty had allowed multiple scores. Stephon Gilmore has been tagged with a big play allowed each week. Patrick Chung and Malcolm Butler haven’t been consistent. What should have been an obvious strength for the Patriots defense in 2017 has been a clear work in progress.
Barnwell seems to think that the Patriots secondary will improve as all players regress back towards their historical levels of play. It’s bad timing that all four starters regressed at the same time, but they should eventually get back to playing at the level seen from 2014-16.
Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz, the creator of DVOA, looked into the Patriots terrible defense through three games to see if there’s any historical precedence worth discussing. The Patriots rank 32nd in the league in DVOA, a chasm away from the 31st ranked Saints.
Schatz looked at other teams over the past two decades that ranked in the bottom five of defensive DVOA through three games, but still held a winning record, and found 16 qualifying teams. 12 of the 16 teams made the playoffs, “although only one— the 2006 Colts— won the Super Bowl.” That said, of those 16 teams, the 2017 Patriots defense was superior to only two of them.
Three other Patriots squads are counted of those 16, including the 2006, 2010, and 2011 teams. All three made the postseason, with the 2011 team reaching the Super Bowl, so having such a bad defense at this point in the year is not a death knell for the squad.
In fact, the prior precedence suggests that if the Patriots can slowly climb back up to the low-20s or even the teens in the rankings by the end of the year, then New England has a real shot of becoming a complete team just in time for the playoffs because that indicates the unit made serious strides over the course of the year. Even those 2006 Patriots finished the year ranked 7th in defensive DVOA.
The Patriots defense has a long way to go before it can be considered “average,” but an “average” defense paired with the high-flying New England offense should be enough to get the team back over the top.