It’s gone without saying all season that the Patriots pass defense hasn’t been very good. In fact since they came out of the gate, the Pats have been called the consensus worst defense in the NFL -- 32nd in the league against the pass, 32nd in the league overall.
Well to steal a line from Apollo Creed, do you know what something like that does to a man of my intelligence? I have a hard time accepting that the man who muzzled the K-Gun offense and brought the tent down on The Greatest Show on Turf and won a Super Bowl putting Troy Brown in at dime back all of sudden forgot how to coach a pass defense.
I have to admit, they haven’t passed the eyeball test all year. Seeing them sit back in those Memory Foam Mattress-soft coverages and get picked apart by quarterbacks who went undrafted in your fantasy pool has driven me to the brink.
So I had two options. Either continue huffing keyboard dusting spray and cutting myself, or summon the courage to face off against my oldest and most hated adversary: Math.
(Note: Neither I nor anyone at WEEI condones huffing or cutting yourself. It’s a rhetorical device. But if you need a goofy sports column to tell you not to do them, you’ve got bigger problems than just that.)
It was a tough call, as many people in my life could tell you. My old Quantitative Analysis professor, the guy who does my taxes, the cop who asked me how fast I was driving and how many beers I had. They’ll all confirm numbers are not my thing. You seldom get brains to go with good looks like mine.
(Don’t drink and drive, either. Let’s move on.)
But this “Worst Pass Defense in Football” thing has been gnawing at me. So I put the razor long enough to monkey around with the stats page on NFL.com. That hardly constitutes real research. But for me it felt like getting a 2,400 on the SATs.
And after looking deep into the Patriots official defensive numbers, I’m ready to argue that not only are they not the worst in the NFL, they’re really not half bad. And looking deep into the numbers you can argue they’re doing exactly what Belichick is coaching them to do. Like the half-finished Death Star II, they’re fully operational and everything is transpiring according to the Emperor’s design.
Just for the hell of it, I’m going to lay out what I learned in Q&A style:
Do the Pats have the worst pass defense in the NFL? Officially, yes. But in reality, no. The NFL ranks offenses and defenses according to total yards, period. By that metric, they ARE the worst, giving up 299.5 yards per game. The first time all year, incidentally, they’ve gotten it below the dreaded 300 mark.
So that’s bad, right? Being last in the league is bad. And you can’t win with a bad defense. Not necessarily. The undisputable Best Team in the World right now is Green Bay. And they’re giving up the second most passing yards, 289.3 per game. And after them is a huge dropoff of almost 20 YPG and the rest of the NFL is more or less bunched together. So there’s a solid chance the No. 1 playoff seeds in each conference could be the two worst pass defenses in the league if you judge them by yardage.
How do you figure? Simple. The league’s two most prolific offenses get big leads, go into deep cover shells and give up lots of garbage yards. That’s how Mark Sanchez ends up with over 300 yards in a blowout win by the Patriots when the whole world knows he played like crap.
So what’s a better way to measure it? Like I said, I’m not much of a stats guy. But the people who know such things like Cold, Hard Football Facts will tell you it’s all about Defensive Passer Rating. That is, the cumulative Passer Ratings of opposing QBs. And I’m referring to real passer rating. None of that gimmicky ESPN Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) ragtime where Tim Tebow goes 4-for-10 for 79 yards and a TD and rates higher than Aaron Rogers who went 26 of 39 passes for 396 yards and 2 TDs. I mean the real NFL passer stats. CHFF facts says that the differential between your offense’s PR and your defense’s PR in the No. 1 determinant of Super Bowl champions.
So how to the Pats rank there? 19th in the league. 84.7.
OK, that’s not as bad as I thought but it still sucks. I mean, you can’t win a championship putting up those numbers, or can you? It’s been done. Not often, but it’s been done. The 2006 Super Bowl champ Colts were 18th in the league, but they were also historically bad at stopping the run; last in the league in Rushing Yards Against by like 30 per game. Still they were able to tighten things up toward the end of the year and the playoffs just enough to let their great offense carry them.
Is your point that that’s what we’re seeing in New England? Sort of. Granted they’ve helped some pretty non-descript quarterbacks put up some ridiculously massive yardage totals. Remember Chad Henne’s 416 in Week 1? Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 369 in Week 3 probably got him a contract extension. I’m sure if Jamarcus Russell had one more crack at this defense he’d still be in the league. The secondary’s marketing slogan should be “Where incentive bonuses happen.” But they’ve faced the toughest offenses they’ll see this regular season. The rest of the schedule gives them a chance to improve their numbers against a casino buffet of Vince Youngs, Curtis Painters and Tebows. But we haven’t mentioned a couple of other stats that are way more important than Passing Yards Against.
Such as? Well how about points? Those kind of matter. As it stands, they’re 10th in the league in Points Against with 203. Again, not great. Not dominant. But it’s a damn sight better than your Super Bowl champs of the year before last when New Orleans finished 20th.
But they’ve got to get more pressure up front, right? They’re tied for 16th in sacks with 23, which doesn’t sound great but it puts them right in the middle of a pack of pressure-happy, blitz-fetished clubs like the Jets, Steelers, Packers and Cowboys.
How’s that Bend- Don’t-Breaky thing treating ya? They’re 16th in the Red Zone efficiency, giving up TDs exactly half the time. Again, not great but far from the worst in the league.
C’mon, you can’t look at all those long completions and tell me you’re seeing diamonds in that dog crap? Look, no one hates giving up a 3rd & 20 where they give up 22 more than I do. And I’ve got the wrist scars to prove it. But I think they’re playing just where Belichick is telling them to. On completions of 20+ yards, they’ve given up the most in the league with 51. And tellingly, Green Bay is #2. But on completions of 40+ yards? They’re 2nd, having only given up just 2 all year. And they’re one of only 4 teams in the NFL that hasn’t given up a 60+ yarder. Granted, it can be hard to watch them it’s hard sometimes to watch them play that umbrella coverage and give up all those underneath throws, but I’m convinced it’s by design.
So how do you explain away the Patriots being the worst-ranked defense? Again, it’s how you look at it. I’m no more a fan of watching them give up huge chunks of yards to anonymous quarterbacks with crappy arms than anyone else is. I’ve compared it to watching Dice-K walk the bases loaded but keep guys from crossing the plate. They might keep the scoring down but it’s still maddening to watch. No one wants to watch an army retreat. It’s much more fun to attack. Like Patton when he said “We’re advancing constantly and we’re not holding onto anything. Except the enemy. We’re going to hold onto him by the nose and we’re gonna kick him in the ass.“
Well one of the great defensive minds in football history has made a conscious decision to lay back, play deep coverages, take away the quick strike score and force teams to move the chains between the 20s and then beat you in the Red Zone.
Is it fun to watch? Not exactly. But like anything, it’s OK when it works. The bottom line is I’d love to see a fast, nasty, aggressive defense like we saw in 2003-04. But Rodney Harrison isn’t walking through that tunnel. It’s too much to hope this defense suddenly turns great. But looking into numbers, in spite of what you’ve heard, it might just be good enough.
Follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryThornton1