A closer look at the New England Patriots defense

No one suggests that the Patriots defense is good, or even average. For starters, well, look at the starters. Here was New England’s starting lineup this weekend against the Broncos:

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DE	 Brandon Deaderick 
DT	 Kyle Love 
DT	 Vince Wilfork 
DE	 Andre Carter 
OLB	 Jerod Mayo 
MLB	 Dane Fletcher 
OLB	 Rob Ninkovich 
CB	 Devin McCourty 
FS	 Matt Slater 
SS	 James Ihedigbo 
CB	 Kyle Arrington

Casual fans have heard of Wilfork and Mayo, and McCourty was one of the top rookies in the league last season. But don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Deaderick (2010 7th rounder) or Love (undrafted) or Fletcher (undrafted from Montana State) or Slater (5th round draft pick — at wide receiver — who converted to safety in the middle of this season), and it’s not like Ihedigbo (undrafted, special teams ace for the Jets) , Arrington (undrafted, Hofstra) and Ninkovich (5th round pick by New Orleans) are high profile players, either. Now that Andre Carter — New England’s best pass rusher — is out for the season, the situation looks even worse. And among the “name players” on the Patriots’ defense, only Mayo (who missed several games earlier this season) isn’t having a disappointing season.

The Patriots do not have much talent on defense. So it’s not too surprising that the Patriots rank last in the league in yards allowed. But the situation is even bleaker than that. The 1981 Baltimore Colts were one of the worst teams in football history; they’re also the only team that allowed 5800 or more yards in the first 14 games of the season. Well, they were: now the Patriots have joined the list.

But the Patriots total defense is still better than the Patriots pass defense. Until this season, no team had ever allowed more than 3,910 passing yards after 14 games; the Patriots have allowed 4,154.

Part of that historical ineptness is because the Patriots often play with the lead. New England has faced the third highest number of pass attempts this season, and ranks 30th (as opposed to 32nd) in net yards per pass attempt. So instead of having a historically terrible pass defense, it’s probably fairer to just note that they have one of the league’s worst pass defenses. New England’s rush defense isn’t very good — the Pats rank 26th in yards per carry allowed, and because they face so many more passes than rushes, 19th in rushing yards allowed.

But New England ranks 14th in points allowed. That means despite a terrible pass defense and a bad rush defense, the Patriots actually have allowed fewer points than the average team this season. So what gives?

A common explanation is that the Patriots play a ‘bend but don’t break’ style of defense. That sounds good, but New England is fielding the same collection of no-names regardless of where the opponent’s line of scrimmage is. The Patriots are 13th in red zone defense; that’s good, but nothing special.

New England has allowed only one non-offensive touchdown to their opponents, a pick-six by Drayton Florence in Buffalo’s victory over New England in week three. New England is one of 7 teams to allow just one return touchdown this season; the 49ers are the only team with zero. Since the average team has allowed 3.2 return touchdowns this season, you could say that the Patriots’ “points allowed” production overrates their defense by about 15.5 points, since most defenses get about 22.5 points added to their ‘points allowed’ column through no fault of their own.

Another reason why the Patriots appear to hold opponents off the scoreboard is because they simply don’t face that many possessions. Points per possession, or points per drive, is a more important statistic than raw points allowed. Allowing 24 points in a game where your opponent has 10 drives is more valuable than allowing 24 points when your opponent has 13 drives. That’s because if your opponent has 13 drives, you probably have around 13 drives, too. Each team has the same number of drives in every game, give or take some return touchdowns or fumbles, one team having the ball to end both halves, and a few other anomalous events like winning the overtime coin toss or recovering an onside kick.

Because New England goes on many long drives on offense and allows long drives on defense, New England’s defense has faced the 6th fewest drives against this year (and the 4th fewest drives on offense). The Patriots have allowed 38 yards per drive (most in the league by over two yards) and 1.91 points per drive, 23rd best. Points per drive allowed excludes non-offensive touchdowns, so a 23rd-place ranking in points per drive allowed is a better measures of New England’s defense than their 14th-place ranking in points allowed.

Because of a great offense and a good punting unit, the Patriots defense is rarely placed in a bad situation. New England rarely turns the ball over (third fewest in the league) and gains so many yards (2nd most) that they’re not giving the opponent the ball in a position to score. In fact, New England’s opponents have the 2nd worst average starting drive position of any team in the league (#1 is San Francisco, a team that seems to have been teleported straight from the ’70s) — the 24-yard-line.

So New England opponents have few possessions in most games, because there just aren’t many three-and-outs by either team. When you play New England, don’t expect to ever get the ball in good field position. The Patriots have been pretty good in the red zone — New England has intercepted 6 of 79 pass attempts against them when backed against their own end zone (7.6%) while the rest of the league has intercepted just 2.9% of such passes. One could argue that this is because New England’s red zone defense is just better than their regular defense, but the more likely explanation is some random luck. A few tipped passes — like this Santana Moss interception — can greatly influence your interception rate on a small number of attempts.

So how do you bridge the wide gap between a defense that ranks #32 in yards allowed and #14 in points allowed? First, you recognize that the offense puts the defense in a great position, by rarely turning the ball over, keeping the defense off the field and giving the opponent terrible field position. If you can be overrated at #32, the Patriots’ defense is, because while New England is #32 in yards allowed that’s despite not facing many drives. The Patriots are an even worse #32 in yards allowed per drive. And while the Patriots are “only” 23rd in points allowed per drive, a big reason for that is opponents have terrible field position against the Pats. Not only is the Patriots’ defense usually fresh, but they have a lot of green between their own end zone and the line of scrimmage. New England’s often playing with a lead, which forces their opponents into riskier tactics, which explains why the Pats are 5th in the league in turnovers forced despite not having much individual talent on defense. And, of course, every turnover forced is a drive that does not require any more defense, and the Patriots are 3rd in turnovers forced per drive. Next time you hear someone say that the Pats are a ‘bend but don’t break defense’ the appropriate response is ‘then why do they force so many turnovers?’

The Patriots red zone defense has been pretty good, but that’s based on a small sample size (and it’s been far from great). The Patriots aren’t a historically great red zone team, as New England ranked 22nd, 21st and 31st in red zone defense in 2010, 2009 and 2008. In 8 of 14 games this season, the Pats have led by a touchdown or more at halftime; in another 3, they led by a touchdown or more at the end of the third quarter. The Pats lost two of the other three games, and could have lost the third if the opposing coach hadn’t been so conservative. If the Patriots offense wasn’t so good, this would be an all-time bad defense in points against, too. Make no mistake about it, the Patriots are much closer to being the 32nd best defense in the league than the 14th.

  • CJ

    Great review. I bet most people don’t realize the huge advantage of starting field position as much as Belichick does

  • Duh9

    I’m still waiting on the football media to hammer Belichick’s drafts….but I won’t hold my breath. He’s labeled a genius every single year after the draft because he trades down 10 times and ends up with 60 second round picks etc etc. Well, where are these players now?  He traded down with players like Clay Mathews and Mark Ingram available. Unreal. The Patriots haven’t had a pass rusher since I don’t know when. I also have a problem with their personnel on offense…why not surround Tom Brady with a deadly army of WRS? The TE/Wes Welker offense is great and all, and it is remarkable at times….but the bottom line is that what the Packers have done talent wise around Aaron Rodgers is better..smarter. As we’ve seen, a good/executed game plan can limit the Pats offense…come playoff time, a TE/Welker offense will run into more problems than others, Tom Brady or not. I think the TE offense was primarily put in to beat the Jets…he quickly determined that Ryan’s defense was going to be a significant roadblock in the AFC….and well, the Jets beat them anyways last year in the playoffs. Belichick needs a couple WRS who can beat you to complement the TE/Welker stuff.

  • Mike Williams

    “And among the “name players” on the Patriots’ defense, only Mayo (who missed several games earlier this season) isn’t having a disappointing season.”…I don’t get this sense regarding Wilfork; what makes you think he’s been disappointing this year? You replace him with a replacement-level player and then I think you’re talking about one of the singular worst defenses in NFL history.

  • williams .482

    “the patriots have not had a pass rusher since I don’t know when” 

    Does Andre Carter ring a bell? 

  • williams .482

    Also, are you seriously complaining about the personel makeup of an offense which is first in DVOA and offensive WPA, second in total yards, third in EPA (both total and per play) and yards per play? Seriously? 

    Have you seen Gronkowski and Hernandez play before? Do you realize that a team playing two TEs forces the defense to respect the possibility of the run, and often results in trying to cover them with LBs who, if you are not aware, are much worse in coverage than the CBs who would usually be on your hypothetical WRs? 

    Find me an offense that cannot be limited by a good/executed game plan. 

    And, seriously, you are pushing one freaking playoff game as a reason that a primarily two TE offense does not work? 

  • williams .482

    Good article. 23rd defense seems about right to my eyes, certainly not as bad as their yardage or as good as their points allowed, and helped quite a bit by the offense and special teams. 

    I do have a comment about your “why do they force so many turnovers” comment. the goal of the bbdb defense is to make the offense run a large number of plays, on the logic that they will eventually screw up, throw an interception, fumble, etc. At a glance (selective and small sample alert) the patriots have been fairly good at geting turnovers in the resent past (8th, 1st, 15th, 6th in interceptions the last four years), and they have certainly been running the bund but don’t break for that time. 

  • Duh9

    Andre Carter is not a great pass rusher. He’s 60 years old, on his 15th team, and is out for the season anyways. You really think the Patriots have drafted well? My point is they haven’t. In the year the Patriots took Chad Jackson WR the Packers took  a guy named Greg Jennings later on.

  • Duh9

    Have you seen JerMichael Finley before? He’s as elite of a talent as Gronk/Hernandez, but gets the comfort of tremendous WRs all around him in support. That is my point. To ultimately win in the long run in this league on offense you need WRs who can win on the outside and the Patriots don’t have it….and they will meet their demise in the playoffs to the Ravens or someone like that because of it. The bottom line for me is that Belichick has had terrible drafts, and despite being a great defensive coach, has a god-awful defense….and I disagree with a TE/Welker offense philisophically in that I would rather have go-to WRs on the outside in addition to TE/Welker. You saw what Brady did with Moss…but apparently Belichick didn’t.

  • Jeff

    Carter isn’t a long term solution, and on pass rush alone he is was not dominant,  but overall he had an extremely good year.

    http://www.profootballfocus.com/blog/2011/12/23/stories-of-the-season-replacing-andre-carter/

  • williams .482

    I am failing to see any actually reasoning behind what you say here. the only data you have cited is that Brady was good throwing to Moss (somehow ignoring the fact that he was and is good throwing to Gronk, Hernandez, Welker, and Branch), the fact that they lost a playoff game to the Jets (I will counter your extremely small sample based argument on its own level with the superbowl which shall not be named, as well as the previous 45-3 smashing of the Jets) and that another great receiving TE (Finley) is also really good in a more WR centered offense, proving what, exactly? Given that Finley has been quite a bit worse than Gronk and somewhat better than Hernandez on a rate basis, you could just as easily be implying that the support of these extra WRs *hurts* a TEs production. 

    You are also completely ignoring things like the salary cap, how much an elite WR costs, the high flameout rate of high round WR draft picks (Taylor Price being a recent patriots example), and how TEs are much more useful in the run game than WRs. BB did get Chad Ochocinco, who was a “go-to WR on the outside” last season but he seems to have had some trouble picking up the system. 

    If this is a “If I were to run a team, I would put more emphasis on top WRs,” then that is fine. But if you are saying “Belichick is an idiot for going with two great TEs instead of finding some top notch wideouts,” then please, give some evidence. 

  • williams .482

    No, he is not any kind of permanent solution, but he has had a fine partial season rushing the passer. The patriots have had pass rush problems in the past, but until Carter got injured they were at least adequate in that department. 

    As for Jackson over Jennings, every team wishes they had made some different picks. How many teams would have taking Gronk with their first pick if that draft were done again? How about Hernandez going #113? 

    I am skeptical that anyone has much skill at drafting the right players. what BB does is get as many picks as he can, increasing his odds of hitting on someone good. Occasionally, that works put really well. for example, the 2010 draft brought in the two starting TEs (Gronk and Hernandez) who you seem to hate, a starting CB (McCourty) who looks to be at least average overall (great last year, not so much this year), a very good* run stuffing LB (Spikes), a very good punter (Mesko), and a solid DE (Dederick). 

    *to clarify, “very good” is modifying “run stuffing,” not “LB.” 

    The Packers and the Patriots are two of the most well run teams in football right now. I have nothing against Mike McCarthy. I do not know which of them is the better coach. But because McCarthy took Greg Jennings when Belichick took Chad Jackson does not make Belichick bad at drafting. 

  • Duh9

    Williams, no matter how you spin this, the Patriots defense IS GARBAGE. Many of their draft picks have not panned out…..they haven’t developed them, period.  The Patriots’ drafts have largely been unimpressive overall. Yes, they found some great talent, but for the most part they have missed big time. If your point is that this is common in the draft, you hit on some and miss on others, then I’d agree….but my point is that BB is hailed as a genius every year for his magical manipulation of the draft board, wheeling and dealing etc….but the reality is that he has missed out on some great players while also drafting several duds. Even the way you describe their drafts above doesn’t sound very impressive to me…that’s all I’m saying. The “trade down” mentality HAS NOT worked for BB IMO. I mean, Mallett in the 3rd round….really???? And that was AFTER they drafted 2 RBs in a row, both of whom were marginal college players and are now role players for the Pats. That is a 2nd and 2 3rd round picks right there. Absolutely dreadful drafting. For the record, I do like Mallett as a prospect, just not the Patriots drafting him in the 3rd round….dumb.

  • Duh9

    My point is that what the Packers did in surrounding Aaron Rodgers with talent is SMARTER than what the Patriots have done with Tom Brady. The Packers have a WR-centered offense with a deadly TE in JerMichael Finley. The Saints are the same way…they deploy an arsenal of speed and size at WR with an absolute monster TE in Jimmy Graham.

    The Patriots surrounded Tom Brady with two monster TEs and a 5’9 space player (mostly) in Wes Welker. While deadly, that strategy is not as smart as what the Packers/Saints have done. I can’t say that BB “chose” a TE oriented offense over a WR-centered offense…..but, he’s clearly missed on developing WRs…have they drafted a single WR that is good? They traded for Moss…traded for Welker….

    I just think you need WRS who can win matchups on the outside…and in this league it’s primarily done with bigger WRS who have speed, body control, ball skills, all those things..it stretches the eyes of both Saftey’s tremendously…easier throws to the intermediate outside etc….the Pats don’t have that. A good defense can bang Welker around enough in the middle of the field/underneath to get a win…..a good defense can limit TE’s with Safety’s over the top, trash/traffic in the middle…but outside WRs that are dangerous present the most problems for defenses in the NFL and I think it’s going to be a problem for the Patriots in the playoffs…a major problem? No. But enough of a problem to where they don’t win a SB? You betcha.

    I understand that the Patriots are remarkable on offense so I’m only talking about the playoffs here…when it truly matters…when you truly get the best from the opponent…and I don’t think the Patriots are suited to beat other great teams…..factor in the defense (which is the most important point in this argument) being terrible, and the Patriots will be watching the Super Bowl at home again this year.

  • williams .482

    I do not think anyone is a “draft master,” and not do I think that this defense is good (although “garbage” I disagree with). Everyone misses out on great players, everyone drafts several duds. I strongly disagree with you about the trading down strategy, however, as well as your analysis of taking Vereen, Ridley, and Mallett as “dumb.” 

    Trading down nets the patriots a huge supply of picks, which allows them to both hit and miss more in the lower rounds, and which can be (and are) dealt for players and more, higher picks. It is really rather clever if you think about it: By postponing your 1st round pick one year, you can get a free second round pick, and (because you are a good football team) probably move up a couple of slots in the process. Why wouldn’t you trade a first for a first and a second, or if you prefer, a theoretically infinite supply of second round picks? 

    The other thing that you seem to be taking issue with it Belichick’s strategy of picking by tallent, NOT need. This can be debated, and both sides have some merit. 

    Finally, are you seriously trashing three mid-round draft picks for being role players as rookies? Ridley had been solid when called upon, Vereen has been injured, and as for Mallett, BB knows better than any of us how much Brady has left in the tank. Trashing the picks before a season has passed is thoroughly absurd. 

  • williams .482

    As for players not being developed, what about the massive numbers of UDFAs playing, even starting, for the patriots. BJGE, Arrington, Connolly, Fletcher, Guyton, Love, Waters, and Wright (another good but seriously injured pass rusher) have been somewhere between excellent starters and bad role players. 

  • Duh9

    Ok, here’s a stat for you….At the start of the 2011 season, the Patriots had 3 players on their active roster out of the 26 players they drafted from 2006-2008. 3 out of 26??? Check mate.

  • williams .482

    You are correct in that they have not drafted a successful WR in some time; I believe than Branch was the most recent. That is somewhat of a problem, given that the current crew is getting old. 

    Yes, TEs can be limited with Safeties over the top. The same is true with WRs on the sidelines, of course (a good defense could shut down Randy Moss in the playoffs too), and having the TEs in means that you can run the ball effectively when the pass does not work. Also, you are really not acknowledging the amount of space these guys have to work with. Every one of the WRs and TEs is capable of running a deep or sideline route, and all but Branch can be relied upon to beat a single coverage against all but the best DBs. The Jets pulling it off once (and they had no luck repeating it, you will note) does not mean any good defense can. 

    The patriots have at the very most *maybe* a 40% chance of making the superbowl. You will probably be “right” about that. The same is true for the packers as well, and the Saints have considerably worse odds. It is the playoffs, it is one-and-done, any given sunday. I mean, the 2008 Cardinals made the superbowl! Odds are against the Patriots (or any single team, for that matter) making the superbowl, and that is not because their offense relies on Welker and TEs. 

  • williams .482

    In short, Gronk and Hernandez are like those WRs you describe relative to the LBs covering them, but if the LBs become CBs and beat them, the Pats can just run the ball. 

  • williams .482

    They drafted terribly between 2006-2008. I am not going to dispute that. 

  • williams .482

    They have had some terrible drafts, a great draft, and some okay drafts. Sounds about average. 

  • Mr.Murder

    Carter was having comeback player of the year type of output, though they traditionally save that label for someone who was injured, not an underachiever from a bad team who moves to a good one.

    Arrington is having a great year in terms of interceptions,  and McCourty was one of the better corners of his draft class.  Ninkovich is fun to watch play, he improved with Bill’s coaching him.
    One of their rotation defensive tackles is now injured or playing less(was it Love?) aside from that nobody on the interior gets off the ball. Wilfork has weight to keep you from moving him but he doesn’t get off the ball well at all, maybe you can tell him he’s guarding a stack of pancakes and he develops some urgency in his first step again.

    Don’t even get me started on their favrotie tactic- get blocked, throw arms out and fall down, look around you as you get up in hopes of a flag. Numerous times a rotation guy about to step out for a play will need trainers and suddenly they get a break from getting gassed and gouged all over the field. Don’t throw a comeback route needing seperation on Bill’s sideline he will get an offensive PI call every time, the first time it is done each half of play. The film don’t lie.

    What they do well is grey the scrimmage line. Took their weakness of not getting off the ball and went to the point of not doing it(with Carter and Nink’s exceptions at times) so they could be in place to smell out screens and counters. They attack through a complicated series of delayed withdrawals along the front line. It is kind of like Ali’s rope-a-dope, hanging onto you and tiring you until one guy can be in position to do the dance and be aggressive. Carter was their counterpunch, losing him was a huge item.

    Most recently their ‘backers have looked atrocious in their drops, getting tooooo deep so easy chain moving catches happen under them or staying too flat reading the line and letting an easy pop pass on the seam or crossing route clear them. Most notably, Mayo. They’d better fix it fast. Their ability to cloud reads in or near the middle was a lot of what makes them click, deny teams their tempo so you can counterattack with technique or individual opportunity.

  • AtomicTickets

    I think that without  a doubt the Patriots defense needs a few more stud players to take the pressure that is constantly on the offense to put up big numbers but although they gave up a lot of yards they were in the middle of the pack in giving up points and as Belichick likes to say last I saw it the amount of points you have that decides who wins or loses. check out http://www.atomictickets.com  So my question is
    what do you think the Patriots Biggest Defensive need is and will Andre Carter come back ????