The first half of the New England Patriots’ regular season is in the books and the team was able to meet all of its challenges so far. The reigning world champions cruised to an 8-0 record, in large part because of a defense that has played lights out and leads the league in multiple categories — including the most important one: points allowed. The unit has surrendered just five points per game so far, easily the best number in the NFL.
But what makes the Patriots’ defense so good? And what are the contributing factors to it playing at a historically high level? According to head coach Bill Belichick, the answer lies with the players. That being said, a team can have the most talented players and still struggle — see the Cleveland Browns, who just fell to 2-5 after losing in Foxborough on Sunday — if those players do not perform. And perform, the Patriots defense did so far.
Let us therefore take a look at eight numbers that further illustrate New England’s dominance on this side of the ball over the team’s first two quarters of the season.
There are multiple methods of measuring individual or team success in the NFL, but one of the most intriguing is Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic. By its own definition, it essentially compares “success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.” For the offense, this means that the higher the number the better a player or the unit as a whole performs when evaluated against others in the same situation.
Defensively, on the other hand, a negative number would be preferred as it indicates that clubs have below-average success when going against this particular unit. And so far this year, no team has reached a lower number than the Patriots whose -49.7% DVOA clearly leads the league. In fact, the team is on track to break the salary cap era record set by the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who finished the season with a DVOA of -31.8%.
So far this season, teams have run 452 plays against the Patriots defense, gaining a combined 1,872 yards in the process for an average of 4.1 yards per play. The number ties New England with the 7-0 San Francisco 49ers for best in the league, and is clearly better than the 5.6 yards the average NFL team surrenders while on defense. While 4.1 yards per play does not seem to be a particularly impressive number, it does reflect the team’s ability to limit big plays and consistently force offenses in unfavorable situations.
As noted above, head coach Bill Belichick credited the players when speaking about the Patriots’ defensive success during a conference call on Monday. The team’s depth on this side of the ball is indeed a major reason for its dominance, and one number shows this better than any other: 11. So far this year, 11 different players on New England’s defense have registered turnovers either through interceptions or recovering fumbles.
Let’s take a look at them, with the number of turnovers contributed in parentheses:
FS Devin McCourty (6), LB Jamie Collins Sr. (4), CB Stephon Gilmore (3), LB Kyle Van Noy (2), CB J.C. Jackson (2), FS Duron Harmon (2), LB Dont’a Hightower (1), CB Jason McCourty (1), DT Lawrence Guy (1), LB John Simon (1), SS Terrence Brooks (1)
All in all, the unit has registered 24 takeaways so far this year — another number that leads the league: 19 of the opponents’ passes were picked off, with five fumbles forced and recovered by the Patriots as well.
One of the biggest numbers in this here list is 15.6%, the opponents’ success rate on third down against the Patriots. All in all, teams have attempted 96 third down plays versus their defense and only 15 of them ended with a new set of downs — an incredible rate that becomes even more impressive when compared to the league average: the other 31 teams in the league combine to surrender 39.9% of the third downs they face.
The Patriots defense is not just good at stopping opposing offenses from scoring, it also is actively adding to New England’s point total. So far this season, the unit has scored five times with four touchdowns and one safety on its résumé for a combined 30 points. For comparison, the worst offense in the NFL — the Miami Dolphins’ — has scored just 61 total points heading into this week’s Monday night game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A few years ago, sacks were a rare commodity in New England. Well, well, well... how the turntables: in 2019 the Patriots’ defense is doing a tremendous job when it comes to taking down opposing quarterbacks with the unit having registered 31 sacks through its first eight games. Once again, the team’s overall depth stands out as nine different players have been able to notch at least one takedown so far:
LB Jamie Collins Sr. (6.0), LB Kyle Van Noy (4.5), DT Adam Butler (4.5), LB Chase Winovich (4.5), LB John Simon (3.0), DE Michael Bennett (2.5), LB Dont’a Hightower (2.5), DT Danny Shelton (2.0), DE Deatrich Wise Jr. (1.0)
While Michael Bennett is no longer with the Patriots after getting traded to the Dallas Cowboys last week, the team should feel good about its ability to pressure and ultimately sack QBs. No matter if it is the linebackers or the defensive linemen, the unit led by Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy has been very good at getting into the backfield and after quarterbacks.
The Patriots’ pass defense is the best in the NFL this year, and may have a legitimate case as one of the best in league history — at least when judged by its first eight games. The touchdown-to-interception ratio of 2-to-19 speaks volumes about the unit’s abilities when it comes to defending the pass, but passer rating may be even better suited to illustrate just how well Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty and company have been performing.
Opposing passers earn a rating 40.6 against the Patriots, which is just marginally better than throwing every pass incomplete (which would earn a 39.6). The league average in this category, for comparison, is 92.1. While New England has not exactly faced a murderer’s row of passers so far this year, the team’s defense has still done what is expected: it shut down every opponent standing in its way, and rendered them virtually useless.
Moving the football against this Patriots defense is hard, scoring against it is nearly impossible as the point average above shows. It is therefore no surprise to see that the unit also ranks first in the league when it comes to stopping drives either by forcing punts, takeaways, or turnovers on downs. All in all, 92.3% of opponents’ series do not end with points which leads the league by a wide margin ahead of the 49ers’ 83.7%. The league average, for comparison, is “only” 64.9%.
On top of it all, the Patriots also force turnovers on 23.1% of their defensive series. This is almost double the league average of 12.1% and ahead of the second ranked Pittsburgh Steelers and their 22.1%.