A bit over a month ago the New England Patriots played the Carolina Panthers and were beaten 33-30. The defeat dropped the team to 2-2 on the season and had New England fans reeling. Where was the team that was legitimately considered a threat to go 19-0 before the season began?
Another question: How had a defense that had brought back Malcolm Butler and Dont’a Hightower and signed Stephon Gilmore seemed to have gotten worse? In those first four games, the Patriots had given up an average of 32 points. The headlines were macabre:
Everyone assumed Tom Brady and the gang would figure things out and put points on the board on offense. But the mood in Pats nation was dour. Maybe there was something fundamentally wrong with this defense. Maybe head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia had lost that golden touch and had a unit that they just couldn’t get to work.
It happens everywhere else in the NFL...sometimes teams, for whatever reason, just don’t come together. Maybe, finally, it was the Patriots’ turn.
And then it wasn’t the Patriots’ turn.
Patriots points allowed since their 33-30 loss to the Panthers in Week 4:— Zack Cox (@ZackCoxNESN) November 20, 2017
vs. Bucs: 14
vs. Jets: 17
vs. Falcons: 7
vs. Chargers: 13
vs. Broncos: 16
vs. Raiders: 8
I realize those six opponents aren’t exactly the ‘99 Rams. But as the Patriots showed over the last six weeks, and especially on Sunday when they walked all over the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City, they have built a defense that can keep teams out of the end zone. And what is more important than that?
What’s so interesting about the Patriots’ sudden ability to keep teams from scoring is that, when purely looking at the numbers, it doesn’t make a ton of sense. By every metric other than points allowed, the Patriots have one of the worst defenses in the NFL.
Through 10 games, they’ve given up the most yards per game of any team in the league (408 yards allowed per game), per NFL.com. Football Outsiders has the Patriots as the 30th best team defense in the league. They give up yards, both in the air and on the ground, and even ignoring the messy first four weeks, they have continued to do so. This is a team that you can move the ball on.
... That is, until you get to the red zone, when it gets very difficult to move the ball on the Patriots. In the red zone, one of the worst team defenses in the league suddenly becomes a very good one. Teams have scored TDs on 50 percent of trips to the Patriots’ red zone, good for 10th best in the league, per Team Rankings.
For those who have watched a lot of Belichick/Patricia defenses, this is unsurprising. This is a team that tends to play conservatively, especially in opponents’ halves of the field. Belichick and Patricia loathe giving up big plays and will often focus special attention on what they view as their opponent’s most dangerous weapon(s). These are hallmarks of Belichick, and he’s made no secret of them.
Opponents know this. The Patriots’ hatred of giving up big plays will often mean that safeties play somewhat deep and that linebackers won’t dive in fully to blow up plays in the backfield. You can move the ball on them, sure, but they aren’t going to let you blow them up. They sit back and wait.
Against the Raiders, this bore out. Derek Carr and the offense were, quite often, able to move the ball, but other than a 25-yard Marshawn Lynch run and one 26-yard pass to Jared Cook, the Patriots gave up no big plays. Michael Crabtree caught six balls, but his long was a 15-yard gain. Amari Cooper caught three passes, and his long was 13. The Patriots gave up 344 yards total and 237 in the air to Carr, but they kept the Raiders receivers in front of them.
This is Belichick’s basic gamble: Don’t let people in behind the safeties; make opponents execute on a lot of plays instead of one big one. And then, in the red zone when the field is compacted, play more aggressively. The Patriots’ defense uses the constraints of the end zone to its advantage — you can’t go deep behind them because you’ll run into the first row. Belichick knows it’s easier to defend a smaller space, and once he has it, his team starts attacking.
When it works well, the Patriots will tighten up on receivers, get more aggressive with their linebacker play, and force a field goal. When it works really well, the Patriots will force a turnover and flip the game.
It was a red-zone turnover that turned the game against the Raiders on Sunday. Up 14-0 and the Raiders inside the 10, the Patriots’ Marquis Flowers punched the ball out of the hands of Oakland’s Seth Roberts. Patrick Chung recovered, and a game that could have been 14-7 was, within a minute, 17-0 Patriots after a long Stephen Gostkowski field goal before the half. The team never looked back.
This way of playing isn’t always effective, especially when a team hasn’t learned how to tighten up in the red zone or loses focus and gives up the big play Belichick is so hellbent on avoiding. The Patriots still struggle to defend the run and have issues to address there. But with how good the Patriots offense is, and the way this defense is rounding into shape and keeping opponents’ points off the board, this team is once again the class of the NFL.