This season we’ve covered plenty of reasons why the Patriots defense has struggled. Whether it was the long passes or the dependence on turnovers there was always something to point to as to why the Patriots defense was the weak link in New England’s Super Bowl dreams.
But after Monday night’s dominating win it looks like the Patriots defense is finally coming together in a way that has not been seen in a long time. Sure, the Patriots have put their best football together after Thanksgiving the last couple years, but this season is different.
The Patriots are 21-0 in December going back to 2010, and stats like this paint a broad picture of why:
In the first half of 2010, the Patriots surrendered 198 points, or an average of 24.7 per game. Over the final eight games, they reduced that number to 105 points or 13.1 per game.
That trend continued last season. After giving up 184 points (or an average of 23 per game) in the first half of the season, they reduced those numbers to 158 points and a 19.7 average.
However this notion that the Patriots defense suddenly becomes lock down down the stretch is somewhat misleading. In the last two years the Patriots have faced only two top-10 offenses, and both of those had back up quarterbacks at the helm, 2010 vs. the Packers and Matt Matt Flynn and 2011 vs. the Eagles and Vince Young.
Otherwise the Patriots faced offenses ranked an average of 21st both in 2010 and 2011, with average records of 7-9 (2010) and 5-11 (2011). Not exactly the kind of teams that you prove your defense against.
Getting off the field on Third Down
We don’t want to overstate the significance of one great performance but the Patriots defense has been positively trending for the past few weeks now in a way that exceeds what they did in past seasons.
Let’s begin with third down defense where the Patriots have just turned in their best three game performance of the past three seasons.
The Patriots defense has held their last three opponents to 10-for-37 on third down.
— Christopher Price (@cpriceNFL) December 11, 2012
Typically elite NFL defenses allow 1st down conversions about 30% of the time. In 2010 and 2011 the Patriots ranked 32nd (47.1%) and 28th (43.1%) respectively. Their current ranking of 26th (41.7%) might not jump off the page, but their 27.0% third down percentage in the last three weeks signals where they’re headed.
Winning Without Turnovers
As we touched on extensively last week the Patriots defense has largely been dependent on turnovers, especially forced fumbles, to win, leaving us to wonder if they could get the stops when the opponent wasn’t giving up the ball.
In the last two weeks the Patriots are dead even with their opponents in turnover margin. Both against Miami and Houston the turnover battle was a push with one giveaway and one takeaway in each.
The fact that the Patriots have won two tough games, one against a divisional rival on the road and another against a top AFC team, without relying on turnovers bodes very well for the defenses development.
No More Touchdown Bombs
In the first half of the season the Patriots were struggling to find answers on their back end. They were leading the league in 20-plus passing plays given up with nearly six per game. In the first eight games they gave up a staggering 10 touchdowns of 20-yards or more.
However in the five games since the Pats acquired Aqib Talib and moved Devin McCourty to safety at the bye they’ve allowed just one touchdown of 20-yards or more. Talib’s presence especially was apparent against the Texans, and has allowed the Patriots to finally play more man-to-man defense, an essential tactic in today’s pass-happy NFL.
Meanwhile McCourty’s presence on the back end, along with Steve Gregory’s return to the lineup has brought an element of calmness to the defense. Since their week off the Patriots have given up fewer and fewer points each week: 31, 24, 19, 16, 14.
Primed for Playoffs
Despite solid statistics in recent seasons after Thanksgiving there was always a recent to say “yeah but” about the Patriots defensive performances. Whether it was an unimpressive offense they had faced, an over-reliance on turnovers or simply the offense bailing them out by scoring a insurmountable amount of points.
But of late the Patriots defense looks like they have gone from simply riding to Tom Brady’s coattails to being a strength for the team. There’s no better evidence than in the game against the Texans.
The Patriots offense started on fire, scoring touchdown on their first three drives, but they soon after went cold, going three-and-out on their next three possessions to end the first half, then punting again after their first possession in the second half.
The door was still wide open for the Texans to mount a comeback, but what did the Patriots defense do? Forced two punts and stopped the Texans twice on fourth down, holding the lead long enough for the Patriots offense to get back on track.
That’s the kind of complimentary football not seen in New England in some time, especially when it didn’t come via turnovers, and even more especially against an elite offense like Houston’s.
The Patriots have had one of the youngest defenses in the NFL the last few seasons, and just now we’re starting to see the group come together. Against Houston they looked fast and aggressive, but most importantly playing with everyone on the same page.
If they can continue to play like this the Patriots defense just might be a strength going into the playoffs instead of a liability that needs to be overcome or hidden.