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New England Patriots Final Grades: Pass Defense

We have a new running series on Musket Fire where I grade the New England Patriots four main units (pass offense, run offense, pass defense, and run defense) based on their performance in the 2012 regular season. The Patriots received an “A” for both sides of the offense, and now the focus turns to evaluating the defense’s performance after this season.

New England Patriots Pass Defense C-

Since this is a grade based on the pass defense’s overall season, I can’t give the group an above-average grade for allowing the fourth-most passing yards in the league. The defense also allowed nearly seven adjusted yards per attempt (6.9), while the offense had exactly seven. That means the pass defense was almost as awful as the pass offense was great when looking at the season as a whole.

But I like to cheat and weight these grades a little, because the Patriots pass defense improved by leaps and bounds in the second-half of the season. Well, the improvement was actually seen after Aqib Talib made his debut with the Patriots following the trade. Before the trade to acquire Talib, the Pats had arguably the worst secondary in the league. Afterwards, the Patriots secondary was actually solid. That’s why I decided to bump the grade to around average, but the pass defense is the weakness of this team and should be given a grade slightly below the average since this is a grade for the whole season.

Going back to the thought of the Patriots pass defense improving since the Talib trade, there is plenty of statistical evidence pointing to what most of us have been seeing when watching the games. When Talib was added into the mix, the Patriots were able to move Devin McCourty to safety and actually have depth in the secondary. Covering at the safety position was a huge problem for the Patriots earlier in the season, but McCourty is one of the best coverage safeties in the game (one of the best safeties in the game, period) in addition to being a very good CB.

The addition of Talib not only allowed McCourty to solidify the back end and move to a more natural position where he is now an elite player, but it also allowed Kyle Arrington to move back inside. It’s not coincidence that Arrington starting playing well after the Talib trade, because he is more of a playmaking CB and is a lot better in the nickel. When asked to cover on the outside, Arrington was one of the worst cornerbacks in the league and had the worst opposing QB Rating of any CB out there.

In my opinion, Talib’s biggest impact so far this season hasn’t been his actual ability to influence games with his skill, but it has actually been his ability to allow the other pieces of this offense to fall into place. I’m not saying that Talib has been bad because he has been solid this year, but I am saying that the pass defense as a whole greatly benefited from his addition due to the added flexibility of having another legitimate corner on the roster. In truth, I have been more impressed with rookie Alfonzo Dennard than I have been with Talib, but Talib shook off the rust after a slow couple of weeks and looked amazing against the Houston Texans. He’s finally hit his stride, and the Pats defense at this moment has a solid “B” grade.

The secondary does an incredible job of making plays, with Devin McCourty leading the way with 13 pass deflections and five interceptions. Tavon Wilson has also quietly added four picks, and Kyle Arrington also tipped 11 passes. The secondary as a whole has been the best in the league at forcing turnovers, and that makes up for the fact that they finished 23rd in the league in pass defense per Football Outsiders DVOA.

The Pats earned high marks for covering No. 2 wideouts and did a credible job against No. 1 wideouts (a testament to McCourty, Talib, and Dennard), but they were one of the worst defenses in the league against N0. 3 (and up) receivers as well as tight ends. The linebackers improved in coverage, but they still struggle in that aspect and have a rough time when drawing assignments against running backs. Wilson has been solid in coverage and McCourty has been excellent, but the other safeties are stronger at making plays on the ball or making plays in run support than excelling in pure coverage. The struggles against other wideouts can be explained by Arrington’s awful first nine or ten games of the season.

Remember how I said there is statistical evidence pointing to the Patriots secondary’s huge improvement following the Talib trade? Well, Pro Football Reference  tracks expected points added for teams, and the defense graded out negatively in five of the nine games before the Talib trade. They had putrid games against the Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills, struggled on defense against the New York Jets (they made Mark Sanchez look good), and their best games came against pathetic passing offenses in the NFC West (Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams). They allowed over 280 passing yards in six of nine games.

But after the Talib trade, the defense had just one negative game against the San Francisco 49ers. In that game, they were barely “in the red” with a -2 EPA. They graded out positively for the rest of the games, and they only allowed over 280 yards three times. And here’s the thing, those were in games against the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Jets. Anyone who watched those games knows that the pass defense played well; it was just that the opponents racked up passing yards in garbage time. In those three games, the Pats combined for a whopping 12 turnovers.

As you can see, the pass defense has taken a complete 180. The grade for this unit before the Talib deal is an F, but the grade for this unit after the Talib deal is a B+. The pass rush was inconsistent at times this season, but Chandler Jones as re-found his form after the injury, Justin Francis and Trevor Scott have emerged as legitimate pass rushers in the rotation, and Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham can provide a pass rushing presence in bursts. Don’t forget about Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower on delayed blitzes, as both are excellent at efficiently generating pressure when asked to. The Pats can also mix in nickel blitzes with Arrington if they feel like throwing in a new wrinkle.

This pass defense has legitimately improved, and the only glaring weaknesses are that the deep coverage breaks down at times and that the coverage against TEs and RBs is poor. Overall, though, this pass defense is better than most people will have you think. I do worry about a matchup against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos since they can stretch the field against the Pats with Eric Decker, but the Pats beat them once and should be able to win again. Especially since the secondary has improved since that meeting.

You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.

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