The New England Patriots defense finished a roller coaster season where they played like the worst unit in the league over the first quarter of the season before settling down and holding 10 of their next 12 opponents to 17 or fewer points.
So how does this defense compare to its previous versions under Bill Belichick? Let’s take a look with a focus on league rankings as opposed to raw statistics.
Points Allowed (2017 rank: 5th)
The Patriots keep points off the board at an impressive rate. The other Patriots defenses to rank in the top five include the Patriots Super Bowl Champions in 2003, 2004, and 2016, as well as the 2007 Patriots that lost in the Super Bowl. The other teams in the top five are the 2006 and 2009 Patriots.
Only four Patriots squads have failed to rank in the top ten in points allowed under Bill Belichick and three are considered among the worst Patriots teams of the dynasty (2000, 2002, 2005). The other was the 2011 Patriots that lost in the Super Bowl.
10 of the 13 Patriots teams to have a top 10 defense made the conference championship game, with the 2008-10 stretch the only exceptions.
From a points allowed perspective, the Patriots are certainly competitive.
Yards Allowed (29th)
Only the 2011 Patriots (31st) had a worse defense from a yards allowed perspective. The Patriots 2001, 2002, 2005, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 defenses all ranked in the bottom ten in yards allowed. Two of those teams reached the Super Bowl (2001, 2011) and two more reached the conference title games (2012, 2013).
If the Patriots have their downfall in the postseason it will be because the defense bent and ultimately broke in the red zone. A team like the Pittsburgh Steelers would be able to capitalize on their trips to the red zone.
That said, the Jacksonville Jaguars had the second-best red zone conversion rate in the NFL, while the Tennessee Titans and Steelers are below average.
Only the 2005 Patriots (31st) had a worse takeaway rate than the 2017 Patriots under Bill Belichick and only the 2000 Patriots join those two with a bottom 10 ranking. Bend-don’t-break defenses rely on turnovers and the Patriots aren’t forcing them as consistently as they would like.
New England has managed to take the ball away in the red zone, though, which is pretty impressive. But the 2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, and 2011 defenses all ranked in the top 10, while the 2014 and 2016 defenses ranked 14th in the NFL.
Net Yards per Pass Attempt (20th)
The 2017 Patriots defense took a step back after the 2015 and 2016 pass defenses ranked in the top 10. A 20th ranking isn’t great, but it could be good enough as the 2014 (16th) and 2001 (19th) teams had similarly poor rankings and the 2011 (29th) team was atrocious.
And if the Patriots have a big lead, then their ranking is likely to go down if opposing teams are throwing the ball more to keep up. The pass defense is fine.
Rushing Yards per Attempt (31st)
The run defense is a major concern, though, with no Belichick defense ranking worse than the 2017 run defense. The previous low was the 2002 Patriots ranking 29th in rushing yards per attempt.
The 2003, 2014, and 2016 Patriots all ranked in the top 10, while the 2004 Patriots ranked 11th. The 2007 and 2011 Patriots both ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL, but that’s not a good sign, especially with the three remaining AFC teams incredibly capable of running the ball.
New England’s defense appears to be good enough to win the Super Bowl, but it’s not “great.” If there is a downfall in the playoffs, it will be because the defense gives up a lot of long, extended drives because of poor run defense, keeping the ball away from Tom Brady and the offense, and a few untimely letdowns in the red zone.
We’ll see on Saturday night if the Titans are capable of executing that game plan.