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Domination on early downs a big reason for the Patriots’ defensive success this season

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Related: Film room: How the Patriots defense continued to dominate against the Jets

NFL: SEP 22 Jets at Patriots Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots have played some historically good defense three weeks into the 2019 regular season: the unit has yet to surrender a touchdown, and has allowed only three points in total heading into its Week 4 game against the Buffalo Bills. The reasons for this range from the defense’s depth and talent — as head coach Bill Belichick explained earlier this week — to its aggressive approach and experienced personnel.

All those factors contribute greatly to the performance of what is arguably the best defense in all of football. And as can be seen when breaking it down on a down-to-down basis, the unit lies the foundation for its success on first and second down to put itself in a position to get off the field either on third or in rare cases fourth down. By staying in favorable down-and-distance situations, the Patriots have been able to play the game on their terms.

Let’s start by looking at first downs.

Patriots defense on first down

Plays Yards to go Yards gained First downs First down % Touchdowns Interceptions Fumbles Sacks
Plays Yards to go Yards gained First downs First down % Touchdowns Interceptions Fumbles Sacks
67 10.1 3.2 5 7.5% 0 3 0 6.0
Pro Football Reference

So far this season, New England’s defense has been simply outstanding on first down. The unit registered 6.0 sacks and three interceptions through three games, while surrendering only five first downs. The truly impressive number, however, is 3.2: that is how much yardage opposing offenses gain on average when going against the Patriots — showing how teams are consistently in tough situations on later downs.

A big reason for that is unit’s performance against the run. So far this year, teams have attempted 25 first down rushing attempts versus the Patriots’ defense and the results have not been pretty: teams have gained only 43 combined yards when running against New England on first down — the 1.72 yards per average is the worst number in all of football; or the best depending on your perspective.

Patriots defense on second down

Plays Yards to go Yards gained First downs First down % Touchdowns Interceptions Fumbles Sacks
Plays Yards to go Yards gained First downs First down % Touchdowns Interceptions Fumbles Sacks
55 9.8 4.9 12 25.5% 0 0 0 2.0
Pro Football Reference

With the team setting itself up well due to its first down performance, the Patriots are in a favorable position on second down — and it shows. On average, opponents have gained only 4.9 yards on 55 plays despite needing an average of 9.8 yards to sustain the series and not have to go into a third down situation. All in all, 12 first downs have been achieved for a rate of 21.8%. While not as outstanding as the first down numbers, this is still pretty impressive.

The main difference between first and second downs is the number of rushing attempts. While teams ran the ball on 37.3% of first downs against the Patriots, this number decreased to 20% on second downs — playing in the hands of New England’s terrific secondary. As can be seen, the early down domination is already starting to pay dividends on second down and further helping the team heading into situations to potentially get off the field.

Patriots defense on third down

Plays Yards to go Yards gained First downs First down % Touchdowns Interceptions Fumbles Sacks
Plays Yards to go Yards gained First downs First down % Touchdowns Interceptions Fumbles Sacks
39 9.3 3.5 5 12.8% 0 3 0 5.0
Pro Football Reference

Going against the Patriots defense this season, teams are a combined 5-of-39 on third downs for a success rate of just 12.8%. Needless to say that this number is spectacular, no matter the level of opposition the team faced over the last three weeks (especially in Weeks 2 and 3 against the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets): allowing teams to convert on just one in eight third downs is a recipe for success no matter who lines up on the other side.

When looking at the run-pass-split, we can see that clubs attempt to carry the football on 25.6% of third down tries — with minimal success. Only two of the runs, both coming with one or two yards to gain (out of four such attempts), ultimately moved the chains. What this also means, however, is that clubs were able to convert just three of their 29 passing plays on third down into a new set of downs.

Three of those 29 plays, on the other hand, resulted in interceptions with five more ending with sacks.

Patriots defense on fourth down

Plays Yards to go Yards gained First downs First down % Touchdowns Interceptions Fumbles Sacks
Plays Yards to go Yards gained First downs First down % Touchdowns Interceptions Fumbles Sacks
8 9.1 6.1 3 37.5% 0 0 0 0.0
Pro Football Reference

With the Patriots jumping to early leads against all three of the teams they faced so far this season — the Pittsburgh Steelers and the aforementioned Dolphins and Jets — teams were forced to leave their offense on the field on fourth down quite often: eight times did opponents try to keep a drive alive against New England’s defense in a do-or-die situation. Do was the less frequent result as the 37.5% success rate shows.

On fourth downs, teams went exclusively to the air. The Steelers turned one such passing attempt into a new set of downs, the Dolphins two. The games were already out of reach when those fourth down attempts happened, however, so the Patriots’ prevent defense can be credited as well with playing a role in their result. The only fourth down attempt that did come outside of the fourth quarter, on the other hand, was knocked incomplete by safety Patrick Chung against Pittsburgh’s Donte Moncrief.

All in all, the numbers illustrate how the Patriots have been playing perfect complementary defense so far this season: the team is stout on early downs — with the run defense playing a big role — to force clubs into unfavorable third-and-long situations. In turn, New England’s quality in the secondary comes in play, as the coverage group forces teams off the field on 90% of pass plays called against it on third down.