The New England Patriots’ defense could not stop the proverbial nosebleed in the team’s 47-17 wild card playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills. The unit failed to force even a single stop, allowing the Bills to score touchdowns on each of their seven non-kneel-down possessions.
It was a debacle unlike any the Patriots, or as a matter of fact the NFL has ever seen. Not only did the blowout loss put a disappointing end to New England’s 2021 campaign, it also completely eradicated any talk about the team’s defense being among the best in football — something it actually was during the regular season.
Not counting scores given up on offense or special teams, the Patriots surrendered just 15.8 points per game over their 17-game schedule. That number ranked first in the league ahead of Buffalo (16.6) and Denver (16.9).
New England also looked pretty good using other metrics. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, for example, the unit was the NFL’s fourth best (-12.8%) — a massive improvement compared to previous season’s 26th ranking — while finishing in the top 10 in both pass defense and run defense. For as disappointing as the playoff game against the Bills went, the Patriots were able to find a lot of success on that side of the ball in ‘21.
Of course, head coach Bill Belichick will be the first to tell you that the past is irrelevant when it comes to the current season. Let’s therefore flip the page and look forward asking one question:
Can the Patriots defense keep its status as one of the NFL’s best in 2022 or is it bound for a regression?
New England saw some massive personnel turnover since that fateful playoff game in Western New York. Gone are J.C. Jackson (free agency), Dont’a Hightower (still unsigned) and Kyle Van Noy (released), and with them three starters at key positions: Jackson was the Patriots’ number one cornerback, Hightower a starting off-the-ball linebacker, and Van Noy their second best pass rusher.
Replacing them will not be easy, especially considering that the team invested only minor resources to do so during the offseason. They brought in one linebacker via trade — fourth-year man Mack Wilson — and added four cornerbacks through free agency and the draft combined, none of whom a clear CB1 like Jackson.
The outlook therefore does not appear to be a rosy one for the unit. In order to get a better feel for what to expect out of it, though, we asked Cale Clinton, co-author of the Football Outsiders Almanac — please click here to purchase your copy — in what is the first installment of a five-part Q&A series.
So, is it possible for the Patriots to reach a similar level in 2022 given the offseason losses of Jackson, Hightower, Van Noy, and company?
Okay, sorry, that was harsh. Football Outsiders projects the Patriots defense falls all the way down to 25th in defensive DVOA come 2022. Part of that comes from just how impactful J.C. Jackson was to this defense. Jackson led the league in pass breakups, finished second in the league in interceptions, and helped New England finish with a second-best -33.3% DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers. Jalen Mills had one of the best seasons of his career in New England. He doesn’t generate close to as many turnovers as Jackson, recording fewer interceptions in a six-year career (5) than Jackson did in 2021 (8). Terrance Mitchell is coming off one of his weakest seasons as a starter, and Malcolm Butler is more than a year removed from his last snap of football.
If New England does have a chance to replicate the success it saw in 2021, it will be heavily dependent on young players. With Van Noy gone, Josh Uche will have to find a consistent role rushing the passer opposite Matthew Judon. Ja’Whaun Bentley and Mack Wilson will have to fill in for Hightower and Jamie Collins off-ball. Christian Barmore will need to improve as a run-stopper to jump Davon Godchaux and become a three-down defensive tackle. Success in the secondary could come down to rookie corner Jack Jones, who reportedly turned heads throughout all of OTAs and is now competing for the top corner spot.
That’s a lot of pieces to hit at once, because the New England defense is going through a hectic transition period. The Patriots secondary ran more zone in 2021 than they have in recent years, and the lack of a top-talent corner means they are likely to run even more. The prototypical Patriots linebacker — big, hulking, run-stoppers — are being phased out for smaller, rangier defenders who can play pass coverage underneath. If Belichick can replicate another top-ten defensive effort, he either deserves praise as one of the best defensive minds in football, or a lot of people have to eat their hat for calling him a bad drafter. Whether it’s Belichick the coach or Belichick the GM that gets the credit, staving off this kind of regression would warrant its own duck boat parade.
Long story short, the Patriots regressing compared to their 2021 campaign would not be a surprise. While the team was able to keep its coaching staff intact this offseason — something that was not the case on the offensive side of the ball — it lost some major contributors and has to hope for its young talent to start emerging.
While it could absolutely happen, New England’s defense appears to be in a much more vulnerable state than last year’s. If those young players fail to properly develop, or if injuries test the depth behind them, the projected 25th ranking in DVOA could very well become a reality.
Part 2 of our conversation with Cale will ask about realistic expectations for Mac Jones in his sophomore season.