The New England Patriots traded away one of their most talented defenders in hopes it would fix their ailing defense. One game down, and the Patriots’ defense looks worse than ever.
The Patriots’ loss in their first game of the post-Jamie Collins era brings to mind a scene from the Thanksgiving classic “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”.
Del Griffith, played by John Candy, totals a car he rented, and Neil Page, played by Steve Martin, bursts out laughing, saying, “You finally did it to yourself!”
One would imagine that’s how opposing coaches are looking at Belichick.
Of course, Griffith actually used Page’s credit card to rent the car. So, there’s a good chance Belichick gets the last laugh, regardless.
But how will he turn around his defense? And how much does the defense even need turning around?
Let’s look at how the Patriots rank in key defensive team stats nine games through the season.
Total defense: 18th (361.4 yards)
Pass yards/game: 19th (260.4 yards)
Sack percentage: 29th (4.35%)
Yards/passing attempt: 11th (6.7 yards)
Rush yards/game: 14th (101 yards)
Yards/carry: 13th (4.1 yards)
Third down conversion percentage: 22nd (41.53%)
Red zone conversion percentage: 19th (55.17%)
Defensive defense-adjusted value over average: 18th (2.7%)
Pass defense DVOA: 27th (23.4%)
Run defense DVOA: 4th (-26.9%)
Points per play: 3rd (.276 points)
Points/game: 6th (18.1 points)
They look pretty mediocre until those final rankings.
Many argue the Patriots don’t pass the eye test and are one of the worst defenses in the NFL. I don’t watch the rest of the NFL nearly as closely as I watch the Patriots, so I can’t speak to how they stack up with other teams based on “eye test.” But based on statistics, they’re somewhere between below average and a top 10 unit.
There’s a popular argument the Patriots only rank so well in points allowed because they’ve faced easy offenses. I’m not sure if these are the same people saying the NFL product as a whole is terrible right now, but it’s not exactly a fair argument to say the Patriots only had played bad offenses until the Seattle Seahawks came to Foxboro, Mass.
They’ve played the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals, both of whom rank in the Top 10 in total offense, and they faced the Buffalo Bills, who rank ninth in points per game, twice. The Patriots’ defense has faced the 12th most difficult schedule, according to Football Outsiders.
Based on talent, the Patriots’ defense should be better, but their upside is dwindling as the season progresses. Collins, who once was considered the Patriots’ best defender, is gone. Jabaal Sheard was supposed to be a priority this offseason as a free agent but played just 23 percent of defensive snaps Sunday. The Patriots collected pass rushers, but none of them have been overly productive. Logan Ryan, who had a strong 2015 campaign has either regressed or regressed to the mean.
It seems this unit has little chance to be dominant come playoff time, but they can be better. And they could improve if Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia start allowing them to play more aggressively. The Patriots proved Sunday that the passive approach might not beat good teams.
It’s time to see if increased blitzing and press coverage will work against lesser upcoming opponents like the San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets and St. Louis Rams. If the Patriots can dominate those teams, there’s a good chance they can hang in the playoffs with much better offenses.
If they can’t dominate the dregs of the NFL, the Patriots will have to take their chances with strategic passivity. These next three weeks will be a good barometer for the unit.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images