Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Patriots' Defense Elite; History, Philosophies Confirm

Todd Bowles said it wasn't about effort. Brandon Marshall said the loss was embarrassing. Sheldon Richardson said it was about effort and that Marshall should look in the mirror when talking about embarrassing.

Is it any wonder the New England Patriots blew the New York Jets right out of Gillette Stadium on Saturday afternoon?

The in-fighting in the Jets' locker room is nothing new, but a disappointing season in which New York has been a sideshow in the AFC East is a rich environment for discontent and even malcontents, and the Jets are going to have to figure out who is who on their team going forward - but that doesn't have anything to do with the Patriots.
Defensive end Trey Flowers (m) and Chris Long (r) lead a ferocious pass rush

The 41-3 shellacking that New England laid on the Jets in Foxborough is a lesson to all of those who still wonder, after all of these years, what makes the Patriots not just successful, but in the conversation for the Super Bowl every single year. It's not because they have had a franchise quarterback playing in the same system under the same head coach for the past 16 years...

....and it's not because they play in a pitiful division that has offered up only only token participation in the tournament, with the Jets making the post-season six times with 6 different coaches in that same span, next week's foe Miami has been just twice with six different head coaches and division doormat Buffalo hasn't been to the playoffs at all, and have had seven head coaches in Bill Belichick's tenure.

It's because of their unwavering dedication to their philosophies.

Now, this doesn't mean, for instance, that Tom Brady is a system quarterback, it just means that he's a quarterback who has been fortunate enough to work for an organization that values consistency.  It also means that he is the perfect quarterback to deal with Belichick's constant reinventing of his team each week, a process that sees him prepare every single player for one job on any given Sunday.

One job.  Maybe two, but that's it.  Belichick preaches "do your job", and he gives each player one or two specific tasks, and all he wants is for you to do the job you've been assigned and rely on the game plan to glue all of the pieces together. It sounds robotic, and sometimes it is, but you really can't argue with the results.

That's why as a fan, we shouldn't buy into the naysayers who will argue that while the offense has faced some stout defensive units - half of their opponents came into games with Top 10 defenses - the defense hasn't faced top offenses at all in 2016, and that their stats and status are inflated.

But here's the thing and there's no getting around it, they have done the things that they needed to do, and the competition is merely reduced to that week's game plan - and the result of last Saturday afternoon is a direct result of that philosophy.

Of course, you'd have to be crazy on acid to think that the talent level on the other side of the ball doesn't feed into the equation - and it certainly does - but it is also taken into consideration on the game planning level, which every week seeks to neutralize any perceived advantage that the bad guys hold, but for the most part the Patriots follow a defined template that prioritizes threats.

And every single week, the top priority is stopping the opponent's running game.

The 100 yard barrier is the accepted line between success and failure when it comes to stopping the opposition's ground attack, and New England's defense has risen to the occasion nine times in fifteen games this season with five of those instances in the last six games - allowing only the run-heavy Jets to accumulate over a hundred yards...

...simply because the Jets' passing game was pedestrian at best, two quarterbacks combining for a dismal 8 of 24 for 136 yards, three of their two dozen misses finding Patriots' defensive backs instead of New York receivers - lending credence to the notions that as stingy as the New England run defense has been, their pass coverages have been even more miserly.

Mostly due to the Patriots' game plan's second priority, which is to keep the opposing quarterback from stretching the field with long pass plays, happily giving up completions short of the sticks and letting their sure tackling pass defenders make plays to keep the opposing receivers from reaching the marker.

It has been an amazingly effective tactic, especially of late. For the season, the Patriots defense ranks seventh in the league in opposing quarterback rating at a respectable 83.8, but since the bye, that rating has dipped into elite numbers, their 66.8 quarterback rating allowed leading all of football in that time span.

In fact, let's drill down into Belichick's philosophy a little deeper. He has always said that he builds his teams throughout the season to ensure that they are playing their best football after Thanksgiving - and with that holiday being the line in the sand, we can see that the 2016 Patriots have taken Belichick's philosophy to the next level.

In the five contests since Thanksgiving, the Patriots defense is yielding just 62 rushing yards per game, the third best mark in football behind only the Texans and Rams (compared to 89.4 for the season), 216 yards passing (240 ypg for the season), 14 first downs per game, which is tops in the league (18 per game for the season) and have forced 12 turnovers, tops in the NFL for the time frame... it is fair to say that the Patriots are playing at a level that transcends the negative thought processes, and that they will only improve going forward, as they have made themselves the victim of their own attrition, ridding themselves of "freelancing" linebacker Jamie Collins just before Thanksgiving, leaving first year Patriots to soothe the transition.

Thanks to recent pick up Kyle Van Noy, the integration of fellow linebacker Shea McClellin, and the emergence of second-year defensive end Trey Flowers as a pass rushing force, the Patriots' are reaching their sweet spot at just the proper time and are poised to make a run to a fifth trophy, with only three teams standing in their way - those being their two opponents in the AFC playoffs and whomever they meet in the Super Bowl.

In the AFC playoffs - assuming that New England does qualify as the top seed - of the other five teams in the field, those being Oakland, Pittsburgh, Houston, Miami and Kansas City - two will be eliminated by the time New England laces up for the divisional round in mid-January, with a wide open field now that the Raiders have lost their starting quarterback.

Until that point, the Raiders and New England seemed to be on a collision course in the AFC Championship game, the only question whether that game would be played in Oakland or in Foxborough.  But now, with all due respect to the Raiders' organization, the odds of that matchup happening appear bleak - at least in Oakland, anyway - with the Raiders poised to host the winner of a likely Pittsburgh / Miami wild card game...

...while New England hosts the winner of a Houston / Kansas City wild card tilt.  Of course, all of this is speculation until the last whistle of the regular season, but it seems likely that the road to the Super Bowl runs right through Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots have a defense playing at its peak at just the right time.

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