Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Patriots' Defense Reaches Elite Level, Can It Be Sustained Through The Post-Season?

How many times do Patriots' fans have to hear a commentator called the defense "underrated" before they finally get their due?

Now, being underrated is not necessarily a bad thing, but the New England Patriots' defense has evolved past a point now where the moniker no long fits. They are no longer the surprise unit that lost both of their starting corners from last season to free agency. They are no longer the unit that lost the anchor from their defensive line.
Newcomers Sheard (L) and Brown (R) have had major a impact on the defense

Rather, this is a defensive unit that started out well in the secondary despite the heavy attrition suffered in the offseason and have allowed just 230 yards per game through the air, with only two quarterbacks - Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and New York Giants' Eli Manning - to top the 300 yard plateau...

...and including a front seven that started out slowly - allowing 115 yards per game on the ground in the first five games - but have become miserly since, decreasing that average by a full 30 yards per game.

As a result, New England stands 8th in pass defense and 10th in rush defense, their averages making them the sixth-ranked defense in the entire National Football League - not bad for a unit that was supposed to wilt under the pressure of not having Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner locking down the secondary and for not having Vince Wilfork occupying offensive linemen so that others can plug gaps and make tackles.

That perception is now officially blown away. In fact, this Patriots' defense is better all the way around, statistically speaking, than last year's championship edition.

Through 16 games last season, the Patriots were a Top 10 unit against the run, allowing 104 yards per game, but 17th against the pass at 240 yards per game, bringing them in at 13th in overall defense while logging 40 sacks and 81 passes defended, Revis leading with 16...

...but through 14 games this season, New England's defenders are surrendering 95 yards per game on the ground and 230 yards per game through the air, and are the 6th ranked defense in the entire league. They have already logged 48 sacks and 77 passes defended.

Those numbers alone should be convincing enough for anyone, but for the hardcore who will look you in the eye and call you flat moronic for thinking any defense could be better minus Revis - consider that both Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler are within one pass defensed of what Revis accomplished all of last season, both far surpassing what Brandon Browner was able to do as well.

These facts have not been lost on coaches around the league. In fact, New York Jets' coach Todd Bowles - he no stranger to coaching elite corners in his day - calls the duo one of the best tandems in the league.

"They can play zone, they can play man." Bowles said during a recent press conference "They're both big, they're both physical. They can tackle. Their defense has been outstanding. Those two corners are a big reason, a big part of it."

Bear in mind that this is the man who has coached names like Patrick Peterson and Darrelle Revis in the past two seasons, which makes his gushing assessment all the more remarkable, but he didn't stop there. Bowles went on to qualify his statement concerning Butler in particular, saying, "He's not just a man corner, he's a zone corner, too. he's fiesty and he's got good techinque too, which is rare."

"You can tell he works at it. I enjoy watching him play."

Another reason why the secondary is outproducing last season's crew is because of the play of the safeties.

As you know, the Patriots employ a "Big Nickle" base about 70% of the time, which means there are two free safeties and one strong safety on the field at the same time - and they are all far more involved in coverage this year than last, Patrick Chung (9 passes defended), Duron Harmon (5) and Devin McCourty (5) are all solid in underneath and / or over the top work, while Ryan and Harmon lead the team in interceptions.

Up front, Belichick has an embarrassment of riches, starting with defensive end Chandler Jones who has finally been healthy for a full season and is having a Pro Bowl year - probably an All Pro year as well - with 12.5 sacks, 43 tackles and four forced fumbles. Rob Ninkovich (6.5/43/1) starts on the strong side opposite Jones and Jabaal Sheard (7/31/3) completes a three-man rotation that is keeping these pass rushers fresher than their mirrors as the game goes on...

...while the same holds true for the interior of the defensive line, as off-tackles Alan Branch and Akiem Hicks rotate in with nose tackle Malcom Brown. The benefit of the rotation along the line becoming evident late in games, when the Patriots' pass rush always appears to be a step faster than their counterparts.

Sometimes you'll see a huge four-man package with Brown, Branch, Jones and Ninkovich, sometimes their version of a NASCAR alignment, bringing in Akiem Hicks and/or and Sheard to rush from the inside. Other times you'll see Hicks at the three tech with Branch at the nose and Sheard on the strong side. There are literally dozens of situational subpackages where the Patriots get their best athletes for the circumstance all on the field at the same time.

Among the linemen, the aforementioned riches consist of the draft picks used to select the players, which Belichick sees as solid-gold bullion - there are two 1st round draft picks in Jones and Brown, two second rounders in Sheard and Branch, a third rounder in Geneo Grissom and a fifth-rounder in Rob Ninkovich.

And then there's the linebackers. Just like the safety corps, there is probably not a more talented group of linebackers in the NFL, and all living up to their lofty draft statuses. with Mayo (2008) and Hightower (2012) taken in the first round and Jamie Collins (2013) in the second, though that second round selection was the Patriots first pick in the draft.

Reserve linebackers Jon Bostic (Chicago, 2nd round) and Jonathan Freeny (UDFA Miami) were not on the team last season, while Darius Fleming (San Francisco, 3rd round) was part of the rotation in Foxborough in 2014.

The Safeties are diamond-studded as well, with a 1st rounder in Devin McCourty, second rounders Pat Chung, Tavon Wilson and rookie Jordan Richards and a third-rounder in Duron Harmon - all told, that's a lot of high draft capital expended by Belichick and others as compelled by their evaluation processes - but what about the corners?

Well, that's the amazing thing. Ryan has the highest draft ranking in the bunch, being taken in the third round, and he's matched up with three undrafted free agents, rookie Justin Coleman, fourth-year man Leonard Johnson and, of course, Butler - not a first or second rounder in the bunch, and together with the rest of the fellas comprise the sixth best overall defense in the National Football League.

They are starting to get some attention on the national scene, which is fine, but most compelling is how a third year cornerback and an undrafted cornerback have been able to come of age right before our eyes - and all you have to do is to look at how all three levels of the defense work in harmony with each other to realize it's not just one unit or another stepping up.

The Patriots just have a solid defense that's always fresh, seems to get stronger as the game goes on, and flat gets after the opposing quarterback.

But none of this makes any difference if it doesn't translate to the playoffs.

We've already pointed out that, statistically, this year's Patriots are superior to their 2014 counterparts, and it's a trend that must continue if New England plans on retaining their world title. Last season it didn't, and it nearly resulted in disaster.

In the two games that were competitive in the playoffs - meaning the divisional round game against the Baltimore Ravens and the Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks - the two opponents rushed for 136 yards and 162 yards respectively, and both eclipsed the season average for passing yards surrendered.

Both, however, lost the game when challenging the Patriots' defense with the final seconds ticking off, and both on interceptions - once by Harmon to top a 14 point comeback for New England over Baltimore and once by Butler to secure a come-from-behind victory and a world championship over Seattle.

And that's important to remember going forward with this defense. nine of the twelve starters from last season's Super Bowl are still on this team and of the other three, Butler and Ryan played and had an impact in the big game and throughout the post-season. Only nose tackle Malcom Brown hasn't been exposed the brightest lights on the biggest stage...

...while everyone else is battle-tested tough, and with impressive depth backing them up everywhere except at corner, where an undrafted rookie free agent and a seldom-used journeyman back up a third-round pick and another undrafted free agent.

That doesn't sound like a recipe for success, nor is it likely to translate to such a high ranking pass defense - but these are the New England Patriots, and they've done more with less than any other team in the league.

But please don't call them underrated. We're beyond that.

And we're on to New York.

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