While its head coach is considered a defensive mastermind, the New England Patriots defense will not be confused with one of the NFL’s best units any time soon. Too mediocre are the most prominent statistics seven weeks into the regular season: only eight teams surrender more points per game than the Patriots’ 25.6, while the team has been inconsistent against both the run and the pass.
However, not all is as bad as the stats make it look. One of the major problems for New England’s defense, after all, stems from the other phases of the game: starting field position. On average, opposing offenses start drives at their own 31.6-yard line – one of the worst starting positions in the league as only three other teams need to defend a shorter field than the Patriots. Considering New England’s defensive philosophy, this is a problem.
While “bend don’t break” gets thrown around quite often, the phrase actually captures the essence of the Patriots’ defensive approach quite well: the team banks on opponents stringing together positive plays to move down the field. You want to beat New England? Try driving the length of the field on a consistent basis. Frankly, not a lot of NFL offenses are capable of doing that enough to keep up with Tom Brady and the Patriots offense.
In general, Brady and company play an integral part in this complementary approach to playing defense: they have to make sure the field position battle stays in New England’s favor for the “bend don’t break” philosophy to properly function. Because it is needless to say that the shorter the field is, the easier it is for the opposition to string together plays. This season, however, the Patriots defense has to defend shorter fields than usual.
From 2010 to 2017, the average starting field position for opposing offenses was the 25.3-yard line – more than six yards better than this year’s 31.6 (which would be the team’s worst since 2002). While six yards is not a lot, it speaks for how New England’s defense oftentimes finds itself in unfavorable situations. How unfavorable? On one third of scoring drives the unit surrendered, the opponent had to gain 35 yards or less.
The biggest reason for the short fields are the Patriots’ giveaways on offense and special teams: through seven games this season, New England has already turned the football over 13 times. Last year, for comparison, the team had five giveaways this deep into the regular season and would finish the year including the postseason with just 14 overall. The starting defensive field position in 2017? The 24.8-yard line, best in the NFL.
Now if the turnovers suddenly stopped, the Patriots defense would still have its fair share of problems to work through. The basics of covering a crossing route or containing a quarterback do not drastically change a few yards up or down the field, after all. However, it would tremendously help put the entire defensive unit in a more favorable position for it to succeed based on its core principles.
And cutting down on the giveaways would have another added bonus as well: New England would not waste scoring opportunities. Of course, the unit is doing just fine as it is – but knowing how Bill Belichick and the organization operate, doing fine is no satisfactory result: there is always room for improvement. Trying to improve the turnover statistics would be a good start that would benefit not just the offense and special teams, but the defense as well.