The New England Patriots had a successful 2017 season winning 13 games, finishing first in the AFC East, earning the number one seed in the AFC, and successfully winning the AFC Championship game to go to the Super Bowl. Despite losing to Philadelphia 41-33, the Patriots still were more successful than 30 other NFL franchises in 2017.
However, in losing the Super Bowl, the defense–which had struggled at the beginning of the season–fell apart on the biggest stage. Every positional group deserved blame as they allowed 41 points to a Philadelphia Eagles offense which was starting a back-up quarterback in Nick Foles. That was after the defense was carved up in the first half of the AFC Championship game by Blake Bortles who went 13 of 15 for 155 yards and a touchdown (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
Despite holding Tennessee to 14 points and 267 yards of total offense in the Divisional round and Jacksonville to just 20 points and 374 yards of total offense (and just six points and 165 total yards in the second half), New England allowed Philadelphia to pile up 538 yards of total offense while converting 10 of 16 third-downs and converting both fourth downs. This abysmal performance by the defense played a key role in the team falling just short of back-to-back Super Bowl victories for the second time in franchise history.
With the NFL Combine in progress and free agency and the official start of the 2018 league year a few weeks away (March 14, 2018 at 4:00 p.m. Eastern time), there is still time to look back at 2017. Therefore we will look back at the New England Patriots through the numbers in a two-part series which first looked at the offense and now follows a look at the defense.
ROUGH START TO SEASON:
The New England Patriots’ defense was terrible at the beginning of 2017. While they schemed it up to cover deficiencies on that side of the ball, the Patriots were exposed in the Super Bowl as Philadelphia ran and threw the ball with little to no resistance from the Patriots’ defenders. It mirrored week one in prime time against Kansas City (running the same offense).
In game one against the Chiefs, the Patriots actually had a 27-21 lead heading into the fourth quarter despite having allowed Tyreek Hill a 75-yard touchdown on a busted coverage. That lead disappeared as the Chiefs outscored New England 21-0 in the fourth quarter highlighted by rookie running back Kareem Hunt blowing past linebacker Jonathan Freeny in coverage for a 78-yard touchdown.
It did not get better for New England as each team in the first six weeks of the 2017 NFL season piled up 290 or more yards passing and 400 or more total yards. Whether it was an opponent missing three field goals (Tampa Bay in week five), a dramatic fourth-quarter touchdown pass with less than 30 seconds to play (Houston in week three), or the Jets just being the Jets turning the ball over three times and help from questionable instant replay calls (week six), New England somehow ended up 4-2 when they should have been 1-5 or 2-4 at best.
Whether better play, improving schemes and coaching, improved communication or some kind of combination of all of them, the Patriots defense improved dramatically. They held the Falcons to seven points in their prime time Super Bowl 51 rematch and the Chargers to just 13 points before the bye week.
In the second half other than a Monday night hiccup in Miami (27 points) and a dynamic Steelers’ offense (413 total yards and 24 points), the Patriots held all their opponents to under 400 total yards and 17 or less yards. It was a dramatic turnaround for a defense which had been a welcome mat for the first six games of the season.
PLAYING TIME AND INJURIES:
It was a surprising turnaround as the Patriots leaned on cast-offs such as edge rusher Eric Lee (Buffalo practice squad player), special teams player turned inside linebacker Marquis Flowers, undrafted free agent defensive tackle Adam Butler, rookie fourth-round draft pick edge rusher Deatrich Wise Jr., special teams player turned cornerback Johnson Bademosi and second-year former undrafted free agent, Jonathan Jones.
New England traded for and then release edge rusher Cassius Marsh within the first half of the season. Veteran David Harris was unable to work his way onto the field and played just 181 snaps in 2017. At the end of the season, cast-offs Ricky Jean-Francois and James Harrison were major contributors on defense. Despite his continued undisciplined play, the Patriots were forced to play linebacker Elandon Roberts for long stretches during the season.
New England dealt with injuries on defense: Captain Dont’a Hightower was slowed by injuries coming into the season and only played 237 snaps before being placed on injured reserve. Defensive tackle Alan Branch battled injuries and lost his spot playing just 274 snaps on defense. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore missed a chunk of games early in the season due to a concussion and Eric Rowe was out for much of the second half of the season.
Overall, amazingly New England finished fifth in the NFL in points allowed. They gave up only a total of 296 points. With their rough start and bend-but-don’t-break defensive style, they still finished 29th in yards allowed.
The team allowed 324 first downs (24th in the NFL) and 4,020 passing yards third-worst in the league. They were 30th in average-number of plays per drive (6.1) and 31st in average number of yards per drive (34.0).
The Patriots were not much better against the opponent’s running game. They finished 20th in yards allowed on the ground (1,836) but 31st (second-to-last) allowing opponents to rush for 4.7 yards per attempt.
The Patriots defense did not create a lot of turnovers (only 18 which was 25th in the league) but had six red-zone takeaways in 2017, the most in the NFL. In addition, they were hard to score on in the red zone on the ground. In the regular season they allowed just six rushing touchdowns (second-best in the NFL) and of the six only four were red zone rushing touchdowns.
Other than early in the season, they were tough at the end of the game. They allowed 8 points or less in 14 of 16 games in the fourth quarter (21 fourth-quarter points allowed in week one versus Kansas City and ten fourth-quarter points allowed in week four against Carolina).
New England also blocked kicks in three consecutive games with Cassius Marsh blocking a field goal attempt vs. Atlanta in week seven, Lawrence Guy blocking a field goal against the Chargers week eight and Rex Burkhead blocking a punt at Denver in week ten (with a bye week in between) per Patriots.com.
The Patriots schemed their way to 42 sacks despite lacking a premier pass rush threat. Edge rusher Trey Flowers led the way with 6.5 sacks despite playing just 14 games. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy finished with 5.5 sacks (in 13 games) and rookie Deatrich Wise Jr. with five sacks. Ten players had two or more sacks and 16 players had at least one sack.
The advanced statistics had no love for the New England Patriots’ defense. FootballOutsiders.com ranked the Patriots 31st in the league for DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). DVOA measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.
Not surprisingly, they ranked a bit better in Weighted Defense. FootballOutsiders.com ranked them 22nd in the league in this statistic. Weighted Defense is adjusted so that earlier games in the season become gradually less important. It better reflects how the team was playing at the end of the season.
The team’s rush defense was a problem all season and the advanced statistics backed-up the perception. New England was second-to-last in Adjusted Line Yards allowed by their defensive front. the Adjusted Line Yards formula takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the defensive line based on the following percentages: Losses: 120% value; 0-4 Yards: 100% value; 5-10 Yards: 50% value; and 11+ Yards: 0% value. The numbers are adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations.
Overall it was a highly successful season for New England as they finished 13-3, but the Super Bowl exposed their limitations on defense. Despite being able to mask their lack of playmakers and team speed much of the season, the defense was just not good enough in 2017.
The numbers bear it out. Regular statistics or advanced statistics, this was a poor run defense, a limited pass rush, and a passing defense which overcame communication problems but failed to make a big play when needed for the New England Patriots in 2017.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01