There is a big part of me that hates myself for writing this article. I’ve long disdained the cliché of the bend-but-don’t-break defense. Football is a game of context, and calling a defense bend-but-don’t-break is typically an oversimplification that eliminates important context like matchups, score, down, distance, etc.
But sometimes things just are what they are. And in 2017, the only thing in more pliable than the hamstrings in Alex Guerrero’s office was the New England defense. I’m not inferring that the coaching staff coaches “bendability,” no coach is happy to give up first downs all over the field, but the data speaks for itself: this is perhaps the most bendable, bend-but-don’t-break defense we’ve ever witnessed. If this defense was a product, only Billy Mays (RIP) could sell it. To give up so many yards and so few points is truly remarkable.
By most statistical measures, the Patriots’ defense is bad. They rank 29th in total yards per game, 32nd in yards per drive, 24th in turnovers per drive, 27th in 3-and-outs per drive, and 21st in 3rd down conversion percentage. They finished the regular season ranked 31st in Football Outsider’s defensive DVOA. Anyone who dismisses these statistics as irrelevant is a fool. Not being able to get off the field on 3rd down and not being able to create turnovers are bad things.
But, games are decided by points, not yards. And that’s where the sorcery comes in. Despite being dead last in yards per drive, New England ranks 6th in points per drive. That’s a ludicrous differential. Even last year’s Patriots team, also considered bend-but-don’t-break, finished 8th in yards per drive. The idea that a team can be last in yards allowed but almost 1st in points allowed is crazy.
To get a historical perspective of how dramatic the 2017 Patriots rankings differential was, I compiled a list of the top 10 teams with the highest differential between rankings in yards per drive and points per drive in the last 15 seasons. Indulge below:
Nobody comes close to the 2017 Patriots. No other team in the last 15 years surpasses a differential of 20, yet the Patriots have a per drive rankings differential of 26. That’s pretty bendy. This metric makes sense as an indicator of a bend-but-don’t-break defense: a team that gives up a lot of yards but not a lot of points.
I started thinking about other metrics that could be good indicators of a bend-but-don’t-break defense. “Yards per point” seems to make a lot of sense: teams who have a high yards per point might give up a lot of yards but not a lot of points. So, I again looked at the last 15 years and found the 10 teams with the highest yards per point average. Sure enough, the 2017 Patriots (and 2016 Pats for what it’s worth) are near the top:
However, when you look at the above list, you’ll notice the 2017 Patriots are surrounded by elite defenses. The 2005 Bears, led by Brian Urlacher, were outstanding. The 2011 49ers, led by Patrick Willis, carried a mediocre offense to a 13-3 record. These don’t seem like bend-but-don’t-break defenses, these defenses didn’t bend at all. So what are the 2017 Patriots doing on this list?
The caveat with using yards per point as a measuring stick is that the metric can be misleading. For instance, some defenses might be so dominant that they just don’t let other teams get into scoring position. Teams could get held under 100 total yards in a game, but also not score more than a field goal, which would result in a high yards per point. That’s not a bend-but-don’t-break defense, that’s a dominant defense, just like the 2011 49ers or the 2005 Bears.
To compensate, I included yards per play to measure a team’s performance on a per-play basis. I also included each team’s defensive DVOA to get a sense of overall performance, and each team’s red zone performance to get a sense of how well these teams performed in the red zone. Data below (reminder, these are the top 10 teams with the highest yards-per-point in the last 15 years):
You’ll notice that these teams, with the exception of the 2017 Patriots, were great defenses. They were dominant on a per-play basis and kept teams from scoring in the red zone, resulting in high yards per point averages. 6 of the 10 teams finished their seasons in the top 5 of defensive DVOA. The Patriots, on the other hand, are not dominant on a per-play basis. In fact, they are very poor, which makes their inclusion on this list astonishing. Their ability to prevent teams from scoring, regardless of the fact that they give up a ton of yards, propels them into a top ten list of a metric that typically rewards per play dominance. That’s next level bendability.
There is some good evidence to suggest that the 2017 Patriots finished the regular season as the most bendable, bend-but-don’t-break defense in modern football. They had the highest differential between rankings in yards per drive and points per drive in 15 years. But what does this mean for the playoffs? Will the Patriots be able to keep teams off the scoreboard at an uncanny rate? Can they improve their per play performance? Will their luck run out? In some ways, the playoffs are a fresh start. In a win-or-go-home format like the NFL playoffs, regular season performance/data doesn’t really matter. It can be useful to predict outcomes, but anything can happen.
Although injuries have decimated their depth at linebacker and edge, they have a strong secondary that can match up with different types of teams. They have depth on the interior with Malcom Brown playing the best football of his career. The Lawrence Guy contract is an absolute steal. Getting Kyle Van Noy back, along with the addition of James Harrison, might be enough to help improve the edge, where the Patriots have been a sieve in the run game. There are plenty of reasons to believe New England can improve on 3rd downs and be more than just a bend-but-don’t-break unit. Of course, the Patriots have received their fair share of luck, from the Seferian-Jenkins fumble to the Jesse James non-catch. There’s a chance their defense bends too far finally breaks. However the playoffs play out, there’s no denying the Patriots’ defense has been as bendy as a defense has ever been.