The New England Patriots’ defense certainly isn’t good, but nor is it atrocious, and it won’t stop New England from winning a Super Bowl despite the unit realistically ranging somewhere between “eh” and “meh.”
The Patriots rank third in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA and 21st in defensive DVOA after their Week 11 win over the New York Jets. Let’s look at where other top teams rank in offensive and defensive DVOA, respectively:
Atlanta Falcons: 2nd/24th
Dallas Cowboys: 1st/27th
Seattle Seahawks: 11th/4th
Pittsburgh Steelers: 9th/11th
Oakland Raiders: 5th/26th
Kansas City Chiefs: 15th/13th
Miami Dolphins: 13th/8th
Washington Redskins: 6th/25th
Baltimore Ravens: 30th/1st
New York Giants: 18th/7th
Denver Broncos: 24th/2nd
Minnesota Vikings: 25th/6th
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 17th/12th
Detroit Lions: 14th/31st
Houston Texans: 31st/14th
The Seahawks and Steelers are the most well-balanced good teams in the NFL. The Steelers might not even make the playoffs, and the Seahawks lost 14-5 to the Buccaneers on Sunday, so, let’s just say they have their own issues. The Patriots laid a similar egg in Week 4 when they had a rookie quarterback facing surgery on an injured thumb. The Seahawks had no such excuse.
For all the concerns about the Raiders, Cowboys and Broncos, those teams are less balanced than New England, with even more glaring weaknesses. There’s a reason the Patriots, despite their issues, are considered the best among many deeply flawed squads.
Despite New England’s No. 21 ranking in defensive DVOA, the defensive unit is a bit of an enigma. It ranks third in points allowed per game at 17.9 but 14th in yards allowed per game. Many believe the Patriots only are allowing so few points because of the subpar offenses they’ve faced. That isn’t necessarily true. New England is allowing, on average, 3.5 points per game fewer than its 2016 opponents in games not against the Patriots. Take out New England’s win over the Steelers, since QB Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t playing, and that number still is three points per game fewer.
On the other hand, the Patriots are allowing an average of 28.5 yards per game more than their 2016 opponents in games not against New England.
The Patriots don’t like to describe themselves as a “bend but don’t break” defense, but that’s exactly what they are. They allow long drives and don’t pass the ever-popular “eye test” but do a solid job of keeping opposing offenses out of the end zone.
Fortunately for Patriots fans, there’s a fairly simple fix to the defense that could make the team a better bet to win a Super Bowl: force more turnovers.
New England, either by scheme, misfortune or a combination of the two, isn’t generating takeaways at its usual pace. If the Patriots begin to play more aggressively on defense, and if footballs start to bounce their way — as they should, and as they started to in Week 11 against the Jets — those long drives become a bit shorter. Turnovers can mask some of New England’s weaknesses, which include covering running backs, getting off the field on third down and rushing the passer.
The Patriots also have seen players start performing at a higher level. Cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Eric Rowe have strung together two solid games, and newcomer Kyle Van Noy is helping the team’s struggling pass rush. If underachieving players like Jabaal Sheard begin to play to their potential, the defense could be even better.
There’s talent on the Patriots’ defense, and the unit isn’t playing to the high standards set before the season. But it won’t necessarily cost New England a fifth ring.
Thumbnail photo via Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports Images