The New England Patriots may have allowed 31 points to the Houston Texans yesterday, but it’s very easy to take that performance out of context and jump to random conclusions about the defense’s play. The run defense is a concern, but that’s hardly anything knew. I mean, how many teams don’t get significantly worse when their best linebacker, star defensive tackle, and other starting DT go down with injuries?
The Patriots allowed 275 passing yards and 9.1 yards per attempt to Case Keenum, who played much better than his horrid QB Rating suggests, but I think it’s important to take a look at how many passes they got their hands on. Rookie Logan Ryan managed to add another interception, and the Patriots defended a whopping eight passes in total, which is as many receptions as they allowed to Andre Johnson. In a shootout, the focus is on how many plays a defense can make in order to final stifle the offense, and I think the Patriots defense did exactly what they needed to do with the game on the line. As we’ve said about this secondary before, they bent but they didn’t break.
And to be honest with you, the last thing people should be concerned about with the New England Patriots is the pass defense. I mean, this is the same unit that shut down the Denver Broncos last week, and it goes beyond the twenty mile per hour wind. If you watch how well the Patriots DBs covered, you’ll see that they created their own success. Kyle Arrington was on former Patriot Wes Welker like Bill Belichick is on Stevan Ridley for fumbling, and Aqib Talib won his battle against elite Broncos wideout Demaryius Thomas. The Broncos were held in check, and it was game-planning and defensive play to perfection.
One thing that can never be neglected is the fact that the Patriots have one of the top ten pass defenses in the NFL statistically, and all of their starters (assuming nickel is the base package) are above-average. Aqib Talib has some blips (Steve Smith and Andre Johnson), but there’s no doubt that he’s a great corner in this league. Alfonzo Dennard? He’s a solid No. 2, and the Pats are clearly better with him starting (by the way, he didn’t play yesterday due to a knee injury). Arrington? Just about every Patriots fan now appreciates just how good Arrington is in the slot, and it’s clear that Belichick trusts and admires Arrington a great deal. He’s the classic lunch-pail, “Do Your Job” player. Free safety Devin McCourty might be the best in the business, Steve Gregory is probably the most improved strong safety in the game, and dime corner Logan Ryan is making a big impact as a rookie.
My only worry with the pass defense is the pass rush, and that may seem counter-intuitive when you consider that Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are two well-respected starting DEs. Ninkovich’s impact, though, comes as a supremely gifted run-stopper, because he can’t be counted on as a reliable source of pressure. Sadly, neither can Jones, who isn’t quite having the breakout second-year season than we thought, though we also lofted too high expectations on him. He’s done an incredible job of finishing plays and getting to the quarterback, and both Ninko and Jones excel at putting up high sack totals. But I hold pass rushers to a different standard, because I believe that the pass rusher’s No. 1 job is to put consistent pressure on the quarterback. Neither player has been bad at it, but I still think there is some room for improvement. Fortunately, I think we’ll see Jones truly break out as a pass rusher very soon.
That’s probably as pessimistic as my prognosis gets for the Patriots pass rush, and they don’t need to have an elite pass rush since they have such a good secondary. It would be nice for the other guys besides the starting DEs to step up (part of the reason why they aren’t putting as consistent pressure on the QB is due to the injuries at DT), but the Patriots pass defense is one of the least of the worries when it comes to this team.
The Patriots are a scary team overall, but their run defense could be exploited as an Achilles’ heel if things keep up. After being trampled by Knowshon Moreno last week, the Patriots couldn’t stop Ben Tate, who broke out after last week’s poor showing against the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s easy to say, “HA! The Patriots couldn’t stop an injured back who was bottled up by the Jags!” with a disgusting look of triumph, but that’s not the whole story at all. Tate is much healthier now than he was last week, and backup Dennis Johnson ran all over the Jags with 73 yards on 13 carries. So when you look at the numbers, it’s more about Tate himself than anything else.
When you take a look at yesterday’s numbers, you’ll see that the Patriots run defense struggled, but they didn’t struggle mightily or anything. 4.6 yards per carry allowed to Tate isn’t good by any means, but it isn’t terrible either. To be honest with you, that’s how the Patriots run defense can be described. With the 26th-ranked run D in terms of yards per carry allowed, they aren’t good, but they aren’t terrible either. The best part is that they are only going to get better, because younger defenses generally improved. The reasons are two-fold, too. Firstly, younger players obviously get better with more experience, so a guy like Chris Jones will hopefully no longer be a completely liability in run defense. Moreover, the team gets to learn more about other players on the roster such as Sealver Siliga, who played pretty well yesterday and looks a great deal better against the run than Jones. This will allow the Patriots to optimize their lineup by managing snaps on defense better and also adjusting packages as needed.
The best part about the Patriots defense, though, is their ability to adjust. They clamped down towards the end of the game and made adjustments when they needed to. The defense gets better as the game goes on, and they can be trusted out there. While they did give up plenty of yardage on Sunday, they didn’t lose the game and were able to get their hands on plenty of passes. There are still issues with this defense, but it’s still a solid group and carried the Patriots when the offense wasn’t clicking. With a top-notch offense again and a still-solid defense, the Patriots are certainly an elite team. The doubters before the season have been proven wrong, and I think it’s always important to focus on a defense’s ability to make key stops. There are still legitimate gripes that can be made about this defense, but none of them keep the Patriots from having a deep, talented (despite injuries) defense.