The New England Patriots are sitting pretty at 4-2 atop the AFC East, but not all is perfect within the walls of Gillette Stadium.
Of course, that’s to be expected with any NFL team. This is not an “NFL Madden” franchise in which you can sway trades in your favor and have 99s across the board on offense and defense.
The Patriots’ offense has astronomical upside, but the defense has been inconsistent at best, ranking 20th in yards allowed per game and 18th in a stat that matters more, points per game. They’re 27th in third-down percentage, 13th in red-zone percentage, seventh in takeaways per game, last in sack percentage and 19th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA. Things could be much worse, but they also could be better.
Some of the Patriots’ non-advanced stats are bloated because they just played the Kansas City Chiefs, one of the best offenses in the NFL. Among the Chiefs’ 2018 opponents, New England allowed the second-most points and yards in their matchup Sunday night. They allowed the most passing yards but also forced the most turnovers.
The Patriots had their best defensive performance of the year in Week 4, when they dominated the now 4-2 Miami Dolphins. New England allowed just 172 total yards in that game, many of which came in garbage time.
New England’s defense also had reason to hang its head high after the first half of Sunday’s game with the Chiefs, when they let up just nine points after some strong red-zone work.
Things went to hell in a handbasket from there, though, as the Patriots let up big play after big play on their way to allowing 31 second-half points.
So, what do the Patriots have to do to get back to that Week 4 level of play and far away from the second half of Week 6?
PREVENT BIG PLAYS
This one also could have been titled, “GTFB,” or “get the (bleep) back.”
The Patriots were nearly killed by big plays in the second half of their win over the Chiefs. They let up a 75-yard touchdown catch to wide receiver Tyreek Hill and a 67-yard touchdown reception by running back Kareem Hunt, among other chunk plays.
The Patriots appeared to have broken coverage on the Hill play. They didn’t execute well enough on a scramble play against Hunt.
The good news is these are fixable issues, as the Patriots are usually good at keeping the ball in front of them.
CONVERT PRESSURE INTO SACKS
We’ll see if this one is fixable, but in theory, it should be. The Patriots ranked second in the NFL in ESPN’s pressure percentage heading into Week 5 but have recorded just one sack in the last two games and four over the last five weeks. They have just seven on the season.
Pressures are fine, but sacks can be drive killers.
CONTINUE GENERATING TURNOVERS
The Patriots are doing a very good of taking the ball away defense with 12 takeaways after just 18 in all of 2017. That was key in the first half and needs to continue. There’s not much to complain about here.
PUT PLAYERS IN BETTER POSITIONS TO SUCCEED
One of the players who’s had a disappointing two-week stretch is safety Devin McCourty, who has allowed four touchdowns in his last two games.
McCourty let up touchdowns to tight ends Eric Ebron and Erik Swoope in Week 5 and two more to Hill in Week 6 in the red zone. McCourty might be best suited as a deep free safety at this point in his career. Safety Patrick Chung is better at covering tight ends, and McCourty 1-on-1 with a speed demon like Hill is a major mismatch, no matter what part of the field they’re in.
We don’t believe there’s any reason to give up on McCourty. He’s always been a better player in zone or at deep safety. It might be best to let him get back to his roots if that’s possible in the Patriots’ defense.
SO, WHAT NOW?
The Patriots’ defense showed they can put it all together and have an elite performance in Week 4. They struggled mightily in the second half of games in Week 5 and 6 after impressing in the first half of both contests.
It might just be about putting it all together moving forward. The Patriots’ defense has the pieces in place to be a solid unit with Stephon Gilmore at cornerback, Lawrence Guy at defensive tackle, Trey Flowers at defensive end, Chung at safety and Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower at linebacker, among other talented pieces. They don’t need to be elite to win, as the Patriots have proven with three straight wins and two Super Bowl titles in the last four years. We believe the unit can be good enough. Now, it’s just about showing some consistency.