Is the New England Patriots defense really the 2nd worst in the NFL?
By now we have all read and heard about the Patriots and what the media continually touts as the 31st ranked defense, only besting the Packers this season. But what does that ranking truly mean? Is it really an indicator of a porous defense?
To truly measure the positive or negative impact of a defensive unit one needs to analyze much more than purely yards allowed, as there are so many factors that can go into driving that metric it is essentially almost useless. How else could you consider the fact GB & NE were the two worst performers in that stat all season, yet they somehow went a combined 28-4 SU in the regular season (RS)? It makes ABSOLUTELY ZERO SENSE to use yards allowed as ANY KIND OF INDICATOR of defensive performance.
Instead, what is a useful exercise is to take a closer look at many more stats, and for today that means the 16 stats I track on a game by game basis to dig deeper and see if that statement is true, and also look at which areas NE is productive vs. where they struggle.
As a quick background and reminder, I track 16 different stats on a game by game basis for my main “performance” model which gives me a very solid feel for how productive teams are, and more importantly how team’s match up with each other. Over the course of the last 6 months there are many posts in this blog discussing this performance model if you are interested.
But back to the point at hand - on the season I have rated the Patriots defense #29, only ahead of #30 BUF, #31 IND & #32 TB. GB, which checks in at #32 in yards allowed, is rated #27 in my model – two notches above NE. Anyway you want to slice and dice it, the Patriots statistically speaking did not play well defensively this season. But is it truly as bad as the media suggests? Where specifically are their weaknesses that NYG may be able to take advantage of, or where are their strengths (if any – the media would have you believe there are none) where NYG may struggle – and most importantly, how do the two teams match up on this side of the ball? All stats and rankings below include only RS games.
- Yards per rush - #26
- Yards rushing - #15
- First downs rushing - #19
- First downs rushing as a % of total carries - #24
Rushing defense synopsis: together these four rankings equal the #20 rushing defense in the NFL. However, that ranking cannot be looked at on a standalone basis – why you may ask? What also needs to be included to get a truly accurate picture is strength of schedule (SOS) – that is very critical when analyzing any stats in the NFL. In this example NE played the #13 SOS vs. rushing offenses – what that means is for all 16 RS opponents they have played it aggregates to the 13th toughest schedule (so in this example what that basically means is they have played a schedule of rushing offenses about average because 16 would be the middle/average). If that was #1 that would mean they played the toughest schedule in the NFL as far as opponent rushing offenses goes. Of the 12 teams that played a tougher schedule vs. rushing offenses 7 of them performed better than NE – so roughly half, not bad but not great. We can also make a few more solid judgments on their rushing defense looking at it on a stat by stat basis:
- While their yards rushing was #15, or middle of the pack, their yards per rush was #26 – poor. Here is a perfect spot where if you understand the entire stat package you can make strong conclusions as far as their true rushing defense performance – what that relationship is telling us is teams had a lot of success when they attempted to rush, but more times than not they apparently did not have as many attempts as they probably would have liked to boost that total yards rushing figure up. We can see a clear relationship here if we look at passing attempts – NE faced the 4th most passing attempts in the NFL – a clear sign teams were often behind and needed to score to keep pace with the potent Patriots offense, and the fact NE scored a lot of points (#3 in NFL) – or passed the ball more than they rushed it. That is why we do not see as many yards rushing compared to yards per rushing attempt.
- We will often see a correlation between yards per rush and first downs rushing as a % of total carries – why you ask? If you think about it, teams were successful on NE rushing the ball when they wanted to – so for that reason we see when teams tried to rush for first downs in short to medium yardage situations they were often successful.
Overall I would not consider their rushing defense poor when taking into account the entire season, but when you look at the way it was trending it tells a different, and definitely worse story: over their first 7 games they only allowed one team to rush for 100+ yards - @ OAK in Wk4 (average for the 7 games was 101 yards rushing but most of that is driven by the 160 allowed @ OAK – remove that game and over the 6 they only allowed 91yds/game). However over their last 9 games in the RS they allowed 7 teams to rush for 100+,and yielded an average of 129yds/game. So while the #’s do not show a disaster as far as rushing defense goes, it certainly was only average at best over the course of the entire season, and was trending downwards towards poor as far as production is measured over the last half of the RS.
- Yards per pass attempt - #29
- Completion % - #17
- Passing yards - #32
- Sacks - #14
- Interceptions - #3
- Passing TD’s - #26
- QB Rating - #20
Passing defense synopsis: those 7 rankings together equaled the #25 passing defense in the NFL. Taking into account an SOS of 19, and it all equals a below average pass defense unit for sure. As we can see from the rankings above the success of the NE pass defense relied a lot on the big play, whether it be the #3 ranked team for creating interceptions, or the #14 team creating sacks. But a closer look at these high level assumptions may lead to another viewpoint on these metrics: taking into account the Patriots faced the 4th most pass attempts in the NFL, their sacks/attempt and INT/attempt metrics are not as robust – sacks/attempt of 0.0645 is #20 in the NFL, while INT/attempt of 0.0371 is #7 in the NFL. A small adjustment to be made, but nevertheless, another warning sign that even the metrics NE appears to be solid in may not be as good as most media pundits will lead you to believe. Clearly some of the passing yards that slots them last in the NFL is driven by the fact NE was #3 in scoring offense, which gives their opponents both more possessions, and an increased chance they will face more passes (which we do see in the attempts point mentioned above) – but still, their yards per pass attempt ranking of #29 is extremely poor, especially considering the # of pass attempts they faced. Here are the teams that faced more passes than the Patriots this season:
- GB: faced a lot of pass attempts because of the same reasons NE did – typically GB had a nice lead, and the other team was forced to play catch-up. They were ranked #30 in yards per pass attempt defensively which eventually caught up to them when they allowed Eli Manning to pass for 325 yards on 9.8 yards per pass attempt in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
- CHI: this team may be an “outsider” of sorts being this high up, especially for a non-playoff team – but what was driving this figure was CHI’s #6 ranked rushing defense, vs. the #6 SOS of rushing offenses. Basically, it was very tough to run the ball on the Bears, so teams were forced to pass. In addition, their schedule was full of some of the best QB’s in the NFL: Rodgers twice, Stafford twice, Brees, Ryan, Rivers, Newton – half of their games were vs. those 6 QB’s. They were ranked #18 in yards per pass attempt defensively – extremely solid especially considering they faced the #3 schedule vs. passing offenses – a big reason they started the season 7-3 before Cutler went down.
- NO: same reasons as NE & GB. They were ranked #13 in yards per pass attempt defensively.
As we can see outside GB the other two teams who faced more passes than NE performed significantly better in yards per pass attempt - another red flag. Overall their passing metrics leave a lot to be desired as if they are not creating turnovers via the interception they are extremely susceptible to their opponents passing game, as we saw in the AFC Championship Game where Flacco had one of his better games of the season passing for his most yards since Wk8, and third most all season.
- First Downs - #31
- Yards per play - #30
- 3rd and 4th down conversion % - #30
- TO Margin - #3
- Time of Possession - #24
Miscellaneous defense synopsis: first off as an FYI, the last two stats can be attributed to both offense and defense, so because of that I give both their offense and defense half of their total performance grade in those stats so as to not count them twice, and evenly allocate to both sides of the ball. As we see these #s sans turnover margin are downright brutal; perhaps the two biggest statistical indicators (yards per play and conversion %) NE ranked #30 –that is driving the perception around the league about how bad their defensive unit is. For SOS impact on these figures I typically look at two measures: one is the actual SOS for these stats which is #24, and overall SOS for opponent’s offense which is #22. Not much else to say but wow, these #s are just downright terrible again sans turnover margin, especially because it can be argued a few of these indicators are the biggest prognosticator of either success of failure.
But alas, the one figure that stands out in a positive manner is a big one – and that is TO margin. Again and again turnovers are key indicators for team success in the NFL. This season, of the top 10 TO margin teams in the NFL, only two did not make the playoffs: SEA and DAL. NE checked in @ #3, a robust +17 on the season. What’s more, the Patriots were plus in the TO margin 11 of 16 games; toss in another game where it was 0, and 75% of the games this season they didn’t lose that battle. New England has an extremely high correlation between SU & ATS records vs. TO margin. Let’s take a closer look at the last 3 seasons:
- 2011: 13-3 RS record. Negative TO margin 4 games. Records 2-2 SU and 1-3 ATS. The only game all season where they won the TO margin but lost the game SU was @ PIT in Wk8. One of the negative games was against NYG in a Wk9 loss.
- 2010: 14-2 RS record. TO margin +28, ranking #1 in the NFL. Negative TO margin 3 games. Records 1-2 SU & ATS – remember, they only lost two games all year!
- 2009: 10-6 RS record. Negative TO margin 5 games. Records 2-3 SU and 1-4 ATS in those games!
Amazing, combining the last two season, NE has gone 27-5 during the RS – coincidentally they lost the TO margin 7 times which includes every loss they have suffered, and they went 2-5 ATS in those games. Combining last 3 seasons they have gone 37-11 during RS – lost TO margin 12 games, and went 5-7 SU and 3-9 ATS!
How does New England keep winning with this defense?
- NE’s offense is their best defense. Plain and simple. The fact they average scoring 32 points per game is by itself going to make it difficult for teams to beat them if they achieve that average in any given game.
- Because NE often goes up early, and scores a lot of points, teams are forced to abandon their running game and pass the ball often times more than they are comfortable with. As we saw teams are effective in the yards per rush metric which shows success via the ground is attainable – the whole key is how long will NE’s offense allow a team to stick with that game plan?
- Turnovers – NE is consistently at the top of the league in this metric, and this is one of the top two best at projecting winning and losing games.
What should the Giants do to best enhance their chances of having success on offense, and winning this game?
- Run, run, run, and keep running some more. In the prior meeting between these teams in Wk9 which the Giants won at Gillette 24-20 they rushed for 111 yards, their 3rd highest total of the season. NYG rushed for 100+ yards in 8 games this season, and coincidentally went 7-1 SU in those games (keep in mind their RS record was only 9-7), and a whopping 7-0-1 ATS! During the Giants mid season slump when they went 0-4 SU in Wks 10-13 they only averaged 74 yards per game on the ground; when they closed the RS with 3 wins in 4 games they rushed for 91+ in each, and averaged 106 yards per game. That’s a big difference, and a big reason the G-Men stepped up, won the NFC East, and now find themselves in the Super Bowl. Have to keep it going on the ground.
- Look for the big play through the air. We see from above it isn’t very easy to complete short yardage passes and attempt to move the chains via the short passing game vs. NE as they are #17 in completion % allowed. However as discussed above they allow a ton of yards thru the air, and also allow a ton of yards per attempt – both those are a recipe for allowing a lot of long yardage completions. Eli Manning has to continue looking for Cruz, Manningham and Nicks down the field for big chunk yardage plays.
- Hold onto the ball, and pressure Brady into mistakes. First, Eli Manning must avoid the INT, something he has had problems with in the past, and just this season ranking #20 in NFL throwing INT’s. Manning only had 5 games all season where he did not throw an INT, and in those 5 games the Giants went 5-0 SU / 3-1-1 ATS. Taking care of the ball is the first phase. Next, the Giants must continue pressuring the QB, something they have done as well as anyone in football this season. NYG check in @ #3 in sacks, while NE is #10 at allowing sacks – kind of strength vs. strength here, and this is an area the Giants have to win. Hopefully for the NYG that pressure will directly force bad decisions from Brady, and allow the #7 defensive unit in INT’s to pick off a few. INT’s thrown by Brady and win/loss for NE is directly correlated as Brady threw 2 or more INT’s three times this season, and NE was 1-2 SU / 0-3 ATS in those games including the prior matchup with NYG.
Conclusion: we know from examining all the buckets in this analysis that many of the key indicators do not show well for NE. That is a fact, and even though the #31 yards allowed defensive ranking the media touts a lot is a TERRIBLE way to judge performance, in this case it works out because even looking at this more granular, NE still has a well below average defensive unit. However, in the biggest stat of them all, points allowed, NE is ranked #15 – and accomplishing that vs. the #22 opponent offense SOS would slide them in just below average. Combine that with the fact Hall of Famer Tom Brady is their QB leading an offense that averages 32.1 points per game, that Hall of Famer Bill Belichick is their HC, and the fact they continue to generate a very favorable TO margin, and we can see why the Patriots continue their winning ways even with sporting a defense that most teams in the NFL would be picking in the top ten on draft day with.