The New England Patriots defense had positives and negatives last season. The positive aspects allowed the team to advance behind the most productive offense in football to the AFC Championship game. The negative aspects resulted in the team not making the Super Bowl. The defensive statistics were as follows:
Negative: they allowed 373 yards per game last season which was 25th out of 32 teams in the league.
Positive: the Patriots finished tied 9th in points allowed with media-darlings the Houston Texans at 20.7 points per game.
Negative: The Patriots pass defense allowed 271 yards per game, 4th worse in the league.
Positive: The team rush defense was 9th in the league and gave up only 102 yards per game rushing.
Negative: New England’s defense allowed opposing teams to extend drives by converting 40% of their 3rd downs–this put the team at 22nd in the NFL in 3rd down conversion rate.
Positive: the Patriots defense created 44 takeaways in 16 games and with their offense only creating 16 turnovers for opposing teams, it gave the Patriots a league-leading plus 25 in turnover ratio.
One of the few positives on defense was the base defense, as teams had difficulty rushing against the Patriots. Long a staple of the Bill Belichick defense (stop the run first and foremost) a review of the game-by-game stats shows that the rushing defense was actually better than the statistics bear out. First, the breakdown game-by-game:
As the breakdown shows, the Patriots rush defense faced a number of quality running backs (basically, top quality running backs against every team except for the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Indianapolis Colts) and had 3 negative performances out of 18 games. Ray Rice of Baltimore in week 3, C.J. Spiller/Fred Jackson of Buffalo in week 10, and Frank Gore of San Francisco in week 15 were the only times the rush defense did not hold up. There were 3 games (week 8 versus St. Louis, week 11 versus Indianapolis, and week 12 versus the New York Jets) that were designated as garbage time performances, as the opponents ran up yardage while the Patriots had a large lead and were in a prevent defense daring the opponents to rush the ball and use up the play clock. Giving up 100+ yards or a high rushing yardage average is hardly a negative for the defense. That means in 12 of the 18 games (67%), the rushing defense was above-average.
The rushing defense was anchored by defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who continued his dominance as a space-eating, athletic player who forced opposing offenses to account for him in the rushing game. Next to him was either Kyle Love or Brandon Deaderick for the majority of the season, both of whom are large, space-eating run-stuffers. Behind them was the SEC linebacking corp of captain Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and rookie Dont’a Hightower. All three excel in the base defense stopping the run.
When the Patriots had problems stopping the run, it was often outside the numbers which falls into the purview of the defensive ends and defensive backs. Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones was expected to be a liability in non-passing downs, but often did decent work on the outside against the rushing game. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich continued to improve on defense and that was evident in the rush defense as well, as he was a question mark coming into the season as the 4-3 defensive end role rather than the 3-4 outside linebacker position he had played previously. Like Jones, back-up defensive ends Trevor Scott and Jermaine Cunningham had some hiccups setting the edge against the rush, but were adequate filling in. Undrafted rookie Justin Francis was a pleasant surprise at defensive end rushing the passer and holding up against the running game, only having significant issues against San Francisco and Frank Gore (who is an excellent running back and had dual-threat Colin Kaepernick behind center as well) when he began getting regular playing time down the stretch.
In the secondary, the Patriots ask a lot out of the cornerbacks against the running game. Cornerback/safety Devin McCourty always has done well coming up to defend the run. Safeties Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung also were deployed near the line-of-scrimmage to defend the run and held their own. Rookie Tavon Wilson had some issues against the run and pass, more a product of being pressed into service due to injury without sufficient knowledge of the defense. Cornerback Kyle Arrington, though not a large, physical defender, held up his end against the run inside when called upon to take on a lead blocker as nickel cornerback.
The Patriots glaring deficiencies were against the pass last season, and efforts in free agency and the draft are expected to address those weaknesses. The question in 2013 is how much do the Patriots focus on stopping opposing passing defenses at the detriment of the rush defense? Bringing in defensive end Dwight Freeney and a linebacker who excels at pass defense will shore up that part of the defense, but will weaken the rushing defense.
One move to look for on the defense is how the Patriots go after the safety position in free agency. Remember that Bill Belichick has attempted to get a defense together in the past with three safeties on the field at once (the Big Nickel was what the press referred to it as). In this defense, he would have safeties who could cover a tight end or receiver and still be stout enough to function as a linebacker in the rushing game. Like his attempts to have a Gronk-Hernandez double-tight-end offensive weapon earlier (remember Ben Watson and Daniel Graham were 1st round picks to fill those roles), the Big Nickel is likely still percolating in the back of his brain and could make an appearance when he finds the right pieces.
No matter what moves happen in free agency, expect Bill Belichick to continue to emphasize stopping the opponent’s running game first and foremost next season and to build upon the strength it was in 2012.