The NFL playoffs are officially underway, and the New England Patriots get to sit out the first round thanks to their playoff bye. The actual Patriots are using this week for self-scouting and internal improvements, so let’s use the weekly gameplan article to do the same. New England’s defense improved recently, but, as with every team, this isn’t a perfect unit. Let’s take a look at the Patriots defense to see what is and isn’t working.
The Run Game
New England’s run defense has been inconsistent all season long. Football Outsiders had the Patriots as the 19th-ranked defense against the run, while Sharp Football Stats shows that New England’s defense allowed successful rushing attempts 50% of the time. While these numbers aren’t terrible by any means, they’re not great either. That said, these statistics don’t tell the whole story.
New England’s run defense was at its worst when Danny Shelton was off the field and when Adrian Clayborn was on it. I already covered Shelton’s importance a few weeks back, so I waste words on it here. In short, New England’s interior run defense is significantly better whenever Shelton is part of the defensive tackle rotation.
Shelton shores up the interior, but he doesn’t do much to help the edge defense. Even with Trey Flowers playing like a borderline All-Pro, New England struggled throughout the majority of the season to stop off-tackle runs. Per Sharp Football Stats, the Patriots allowed 6.83 yards-per-carry on off-tackle rushing attempts.
Addition by Subtraction
It’s a small sample, but New England may have found a fix in the last two weeks. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who typically played in 30-40% of snaps, has been a healthy scratch in each of the final two games. While he had his moments as a pass rusher, Clayborn consistently struggled to set the edge in the run game. Bill Belichick decided his pass-rushing didn’t cancel out his run deficiencies, and the defense has improved with the change.
Through the first 14 games of the season, New England allowed an ugly 6.55 yards-per-carry on off-tackle runs. Since benching Clayborn, New England allowed just 3.7 yards-per-carry on 13 off-tackle rushing attempts.
The obvious disclaimer here is that New England put these performances together against a pair of subpar offenses in the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets. While neither team is great at running the ball (24th and 30th respectively, per Football Outsiders), a split this drastic cannot be ignored. New England is notorious for identifying and fixing their problems as the season goes on. As of now, it looks like New England solved their run defense issues just in time for the playoffs.
The Pass Rush
The pass defense should really be broken down into two categories: the pass rush and the pass coverage. Let’s begin with the pass rush. New England finished the year tied with the New York Giants for the second-fewest sacks in the league (30). This obviously isn’t ideal, but sacks don’t tell the whole story.
New England’s pass rush has actually shown some signs of life over the past few weeks. Back in Week 14, the Patriots pressured quarterback Ryan Tannehill on almost half of his dropbacks. In the regular season finale, New England’s pass rush constantly disrupted New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold. Derek Rivers, in particular, showed promise, recording one sack, one quarterback hit, and one hurry in just 16 pass rushing snaps.
As previously mentioned, taking Adrian Clayborn out of the defensive end rotation helped boost New England’s defense on off-tackle runs. Fortunately, this move didn’t compromise New England’s ability to get to the passer. Over the final two weeks of the season, the Patriots pass rush recorded a combined nine quarterback hits and four sacks. This line isn’t good enough to consistently beat elite offensive lines (see the Steelers game), but it’s a solid unit capable of holding its’ own in most outings.
The Pass Coverage
The New England Patriots have a genuine claim for the best cornerback trio left in the playoffs. Stephon Gilmore finished the year as the best cornerback in football, Per Pro Football Focus. Gilmore possessed the ability to shadow an opposing team’s top receiver and completely eliminate them from the game. He did everything well, finishing the year with a 54.03 passer rating when targeted. New England hasn’t had a cornerback this good since Ty Law was roaming the secondary.
After starting the year coming off the bench, undrafted rookie JC Jackson has emerged as one of the better cornerbacks in football over the past few weeks. He’s not on Gilmore’s level, but Jackson has done a fantastic job in coverage, improving his play as the season progressed. Interestingly, his 33.3 passer rating when targeted is actually lower than Gilmore’s. While he’s usually given some safety help, Jackson has shown he’s capable of going up against elite receivers and holding his own. Back in Week 15, Jackson held Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster to just four receptions for 40 yards.
Complementing this duo is longtime NFL veteran Jason McCourty and slot cornerback Jonathan Jones. McCourty actually started for the majority of the season and ended the year as Pro Football Focus’ sixth-ranked cornerback. While that ranking feels high, there’s no denying McCourty had a strong first season in New England. Jones, meanwhile, exclusively handles the slot. While he’s clearly the weakest of New England’s regular cornerbacks, he still allowed just a 78.27 passer rating when targeted.
The Safeties and Linebackers
These cornerbacks, combined with Devin McCourty over the top, make New England one of the better defenses in the league against the wide receiver position. Patrick Chung covers the tight ends, leaving the Patriots with only one true weakness in the passing game: the running backs.
Football Outsiders ranks New England as the 22nd-best team at defending running backs in the passing game. New England’s linebackers, while serviceable on the whole, don’t have the speed to consistently stay in running backs in coverage. This is where the absence is Ja’Whaun Bentley is felt, as the fifth-round rookie showed the ability to fill this void when he was on the team.
Quite frankly, New England hasn’t really figured out a way to fix this problem. The good news is that, outside of the Los Angeles Chargers, the remaining teams in the AFC don’t really have elite pass-catching backs. If the Patriots are lucky, this problem won’t become an issue simply because opposing teams don’t have the resources to exploit it.
Last Word on New England Patriots Self-Scouting
Defensively, the New England Patriots look to be in good shape heading into the playoffs. After struggling against the run all season long, New England finally seems to have found their best defensive personnel. Danny Shelton’s presence helps shore the interior run defense while replacing Adrian Clayborn helps defend against off-tackle runs.
The pass rush, while not the best in the world, is a competent unit. Trey Flowers is an absolute machine, while the rotating grouping of Deatrich Wise, John Simon, and Derek Rivers all have the potential to get to the quarterback.
New England’s secondary is a borderline elite unit. The cornerback trio of Stephon Gilmore, JC Jackson, and Jason McCourty is unmatched throughout the league while Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are both capable starters.
The biggest issue is defending running backs in the passing game. New England’s linebackers simply aren’t capable of defending the better pass-catching running backs in space. Fortunately, this might not be an issue, as the Chargers are the only team capable of exploiting this matchup.
This isn’t an elite defense by any means, but it’s a capable one. This unit is good enough at stopping the run and the pass and should keep the offense in every game they play. Last years’ unit was the ultimate reason for New England missing out of their sixth title, and the defense looks much improved this year. If the offense can hold up its’ end of the bargain, New England should have a decent shot of winning their third championship since 2014.
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