The Conundrum that is the New England Patriots’ Defense

By: Blake Dowson | February 1, 2018

The old adage states, “Defense wins championships.” But the Patriots have long gone with an alternative: “Tom Brady wins championships.”

It’s worked five times already. And the two other times the Patriots have made it to the Super Bowl, Brady walked off the field late in the fourth quarter and handed his defense a lead, only for the Giants to invoke the “Eli Manning wins championships against the Patriots” storyline.

The Patriots defense has always been somewhat difficult to pin down, and this season is no different. It would seem to fall under the “bend, don’t break” category. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s unit gives up a lot of yards; the 366 yards per game the Patriots allowed this season was the fourth-highest total in the league. However, that same unit gave up the fifth-lowest points per game total at 18.5.

When it comes to looking into how the Patriots can have a top-five defense in terms of points but a bottom-five unit in yards allowed, well, the devil is sort of in the details.

There are a number of contributing factors, each of which has played a role in New England qualifying for its eighth Super Bowl since the 2001 season. Let’s get into those and see what Philadelphia can do to combat them and possibly hoist its first Lombardi Trophy.

The Patriots recorded only 18 takeaways (25th in the NFL), but that tells only half the story. New England was opportunistic in the most critical portion of the field — the red zone. The Patriots led the league in red zone takeaways with six. That’s opportunism on steroids. On top of taking scoring chances away, Patriots opponents also left plenty of points on the field. Teams made only 71 percent of field goal attempts against New England, the second-lowest total in the NFL.

The confusing New England Patriots’ defense. (Graphics by Garrett Williams)

In the Patriots’ two one-score losses this season (Carolina in Week 4 and Miami in Week 14) opposing kickers were perfect, taking advantage of the opportunities to put points on the board. Jake Elliott has been really good for Philadelphia this postseason kicking the ball, knocking through all four of his field goal attempts, although he did miss an extra point against Atlanta in the divisional round.

Another reason opponents have racked up so many yards against the Patriots is simply the fact they always have a lot of field to work with when they start drives. Patriots’ opponents had the worst starting field position in the league this season, with drives starting at their own 24.8 yard line on average.

The Patriots force opponents to return kickoffs, as they utilize special teams to pin teams close to their own end zone. While teams kicked touchbacks on 57.9 percent of kickoffs this season, Patriots kickoffs resulted in a touchback only 40.8 percent of the time, the third-lowest total in the NFL. In line with that, opponents averaged only 18.9 yards per return, also the third-lowest total in 2017.

The New England defense often leaned on the long field behind it on opponent’s drives, as it forced a three-and-out on only 20.3 percent of drives to rank 27th in the NFL. The 34 yards per possession the Patriots gave up was the second-highest total in the league, ahead of only Tampa Bay.

The thing that consistently saved the Patriots was Captain Tom keeping the offense on the field. Opponents only got 172 possessions against Patricia’s defense, the fourth-lowest total in the league.

So what do the Eagles need to do? Give Nick Foles as many opportunities as possible to attack the Patriots defense, because it has shown this year that it will give up yards. It’s just a matter of pushing that defense past its bending point until it breaks.

How do they give Foles plenty of opportunities? Keep Brady and the Patriots’ offense off the field. Easy, right? Obviously not, but the Philadelphia defense earned a degree this season in keeping offenses off the field — they forced opponents into a three-and-out on 28.2 percent of possessions, good for fourth in the league, and their opponent’s time of possession was last in the NFL (27:19).

There’s another storyline that loosely applies here, one of a stonecutter hitting a rock a hundred times before it cracks on the hundred-and-first go at it. The Eagles need as many whacks at that stone as possible against the Patriots. The only problem will be getting the hammer away from Brady.