The New England Patriots’ defense played the “no respect” card last season, and they justified it with a dominant performance against the Los Angeles Rams in their Super Bowl LIII win.
But overall, throughout the course of the 2018 season, the Patriots’ defense was good. They weren’t great. They weren’t bad. They weren’t amazing. They were good. They ranked seventh in points allowed, 21st in total defense and 16th in Football Outsiders’ defense DVOA at 0.4% (lower, preferably negative, is better).
The Patriots’ defense is unbelievable this season. They’re first in defensive DVOA at -46.2%, the best defensive DVOA ever measured through five games. They rank first in points allowed with 6.8 per game. The No. 2 defense in that metric, the Chicago Bears, are allowing more than double with 13.8 points per game. The Patriots also are allowing the fewest yards per game (238.4) and lead the NFL in sacks with 24 and interceptions with 11.
Yes, the Patriots haven’t played anything resembling a high-powered offense yet this season. Also yes, DVOA adjusts for that.
So, why is the Patriots’ defense so much better than they were last year and in years’ past?
Here’s who they lost from last season:
DE Trey Flowers (70.18% of snaps)
DT Malcom Brown (43.72% of snaps)
DE Adrian Clayborn (30.49% of snaps)
DE Keionta Davis (17.55% of snaps)
CB Eric Rowe (13.04% of snaps)
DE Derek Rivers (7.48 % of snaps)
CB Keion Crossen (3.74% of snaps)
Here’s who they gained:
LB Jamie Collins (75.71% of snaps)
DE Michael Bennett (37.85% of snaps)
LB Shilique Calhoun (34.70% of snaps)
DE Chase Winovich (31.86% of snaps)
SS Terrence Brooks (27.13% of snaps)
DT Byron Cowart (5.05% of snaps)
CB Joejuan Williams (2.52% of snaps)
That was largely supposed to be a wash leading into the season. Bennett was expected to replace Flowers, and Mike Pennel was supposed to take over Brown’s snaps.
Bennett actually has played more of a part-time role this season, and Pennel was released after training camp.
Danny Shelton and Adam Butler actually have taken on bigger roles to replace Brown. Butler is playing 52.37 percent of snaps, while Shelton has been on the field for 39.43 percent. That’s up from 36.34 percent for Butler and 31.06 for Shelton in 2018. Both players are having big seasons. Butler has 2.5 sacks and Shelton has 2. They, combined with Lawrence Guy, have created a stout defensive front on early downs. Butler also has taken on a bigger role as a pass rusher on third down.
Cornerback Jason McCourty was asked Monday why the Patriots’ defense is so much better this year.
“Jamie Collins,” McCourty said stone-faced before cracking. “Nah. He’s obviously brought a lot to us, (though).”
McCourty was joking, but he really might be on to something there.
Collins has been the biggest addition to the defense after underperforming for three seasons with the Cleveland Browns. He’s added a major playmaking component to the unit with 4.5 sacks, three interceptions, six tackles for loss, six QB hits, four pass breakups, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a touchdown. He’s a defensive player of the year candidate through five games.
So, really, what is it? What’s the big difference?
“I don’t know,” McCourty said. “Guys are just keyed in right now. We’re focused. Guys are taking coaching to the field when we get out there, doing everything we can to execute what the coaches come up with. Just doing a really good job all spring of understanding what we wanted to be as a defense.
“And now, as the season’s underway, just taking the time throughout the course of the week to really focus on how we think teams are going to attack us. I think when we’re able to understand both ends of that, it allows us to go out there and execute well on Sundays.”
Continuity, experience and smarts play a big role too. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower said Sunday after the Patriots’ 33-7 win over the Redskins that he knew what play Washington was running because they had motioned wide receiver Trey Quinn into the backfield. Hightower wound up with a sack on the play.
“I think we’ve got a lot of the same guys back understanding the defense and just executing,” Devin McCourty said. “But we see — we let up a long play — it’s an every day, every-down thing. It’s not because you’ve played well, you’ll continue to play well. I think guys understand that, and we’ve been working hard at it. We’ve put in a lot of time and effort not just individually but also as a group of discussing things, how we want to play things, and I think that makes it harder for teams to come up with things to beat us. Because we’ve all seen a lot, and we all try to stay on the same page.”
Hightower, Devin McCourty and safeties Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon have been playing together between six and nine seasons. Butler, cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones, linebacker Kyle Van Noy and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy are in at least their third seasons in New England. Collins played with the Patriots from 2013 to 2016 and now he’s back for a fifth season. The Patriots brought back 16 defensive contributors from last season.
Perhaps most impressively, the Patriots have seen no dropoff despite losing their defensive play-callers in two straight offseasons. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia left to take the Detroit Lions’ head coaching job after the 2017 season. Linebackers coach Brian Flores was hired as the Miami Dolphins’ head coach after last season.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick reportedly has taken over those duties this season, though inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo and safeties coach Steve Belichick also are involved. The Patriots also lost cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer and defensive line coach Brendan Daly this offseason.
There’s been no drop-off. There’s been a major pickup.
Depth is key for the Patriots’ defense, as well. Belichick boasted Tuesday that the Patriots have used 20 players on defense in the last four or five weeks.
“Show me how many teams play 20 players on defense,” Belichick said. “I don’t know. There’s not too many.”
The Patriots have used 20 defenders in each of their past four games. That’s keeping opposing offenses on their toes and the unit fresh.
The Patriots’ “Boogeymen” linebackers are keeping opposing quarterbacks up at night. Hightower, Van Noy and Collins are interchangeable. All three players can play inside and outside linebacker and rush the passer from the edge. They can all call plays in the huddle. And when one of them has been out, the defense as a whole has not suffered.
“It’s huge,” Belichick said. “Look, we face a different offense every week. Even if they’re the same, they’re different because of the different personnel. So, to be able to have players that can do multiple things and do them well, it gives you a tremendous advantage. You can substitute or you can not substitute. We have a lot of players that fall into that category. So, we have the ability to sub if we want to, or if we don’t want to, we can let the players play where they normally play and they can certainly handle that adequately.”
There’s no one answer to the question of why the Patriots’ defense is performing at such a higher level this season. They’re deep, experienced, and a shift to more of a three-man front has played to the strengths of players like Hightower, Van Noy and Collins. It also helps that running backs aren’t leaking through the Patriots’ defensive front, and New England’s secondary is playing all-world. They haven’t let up a touchdown yet this season and are allowing a 44 passer rating with those 11 interceptions.
Unless Jason McCourty is right. Maybe it is just Collins.