How Good, Really, is the Patriot Defense?

The defensive numbers through the first seven weeks were fairly historic.  The offense claims to be a work in progress – although if you were to guess which team leads the NFL in points scored, the answer isn’t Kansas City.  Last Sunday, as they took the field to face the Cleveland Browns, The New England Patriots – at the time 7-0 – had allowed all of 48 points.  On the season.  While the Patriots were playing the Browns, across the continent the Carolina Panthers were in the process of serving up 51 points in that single afternoon.

On the way to their 48 points allowed, New England had allowed opposing passers to complete just 50.8% of their passes, gaining just 5.00 yards per pass attempt.  Both of those figures were the stingiest in the league.  But that is just the start.  Of the first 242 passes thrown against them, there had been only one touchdown pass.


NY Giant quarterback Daniel Jones had found Golden Tate for a 64-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter of their 35-14 Week Six loss to New England.  I’m not sure if any team had ever – in the modern era – gone five games without allowing a touchdown pass.  Meanwhile, if opposing quarterbacks hadn’t had much luck throwing touchdown passes, they had a much easier time with interceptions.  Eighteen of them – a 7.4% rate.  Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield stepped onto the field against a defense that allowed opposing passers a mind-numbing 35.6 passer rate.  For context, the league average was 91.4.  New England quarterback Tom Brady brought a 94.8 rating into the contest – a glaring 59.2-point margin over the Patriots’ opposing passers.

Ah, yes.  Those opposing passers.  Who were they again?

Well, in Week One they did get the better of Pittsburgh veteran Ben Roethlisberger (a 65.6 rating on 47 passes) – albeit Ben was more than a little betrayed by receiver Donte Moncrief who dropped 3 passes.

But after the Pittsburgh game, the schedule and the opponents were decidedly soft.  They next played the still-winless Miami team, facing both Ryan Fitzpatrick (23.8 rating) and Josh Rosen (33.8).  After them came the Jets (currently 1-6).  New York didn’t have their starting quarterback available for this game, so the Pats got rookie Luke Falk making his first career start.  He managed a 47.2 rating in a 30-14 loss.

Up next was the only winning team New England has played all season – the currently 5-2 Buffalo Bills.  Second-year starter Josh Allen was only 13-for-28 for 153 yards and 3 interceptions in the 16-10 Patriot win.  It should be noted that Buffalo’s strong suit has been more its defense than its offense.

After Buffalo came now 1-7 Washington and the immortal Colt McCoy (Colt is 7-21 for his 5-year career as a starter with a 78.4 career rating).  He scored a 61.0 rating as he threw for just 122 yards with an interception in a 33-7 loss.

Their next opponent – the New York Giants – are now all of 2-6, making them one of the more significant challenges New England has faced in the early going.  They would also be starting a rookie QB – the aforementioned Mr. Jones who had taken the reigns from Eli Manning.  This would be Daniel’s fourth career start.  He did throw the touchdown pass.  He also chucked 3 interceptions and finished with a 35.2 rating in the loss.

New England warmed up for Cleveland with a Monday nighter against the other New York team.  This time the Jets did have their number one ready to go.  Sam Darnold – another second-year starter – was making his sixteenth career start, and the Patriots took advantage of him, too.  Sam, in fact, made New England look like a defense of Hall-of-Famers.  In the 33-0 loss, Sam completed 11 of 32 for just 86 yards and 4 interceptions – an agonizing 3.6 rating.

There are a lot of quarterbacks in the MVP conversation this year.  The Patriots haven’t played any of those guys.  In fact, to this point of the season, the opposition had been so squishy soft – so much youth, inexperience, and lack of supporting cast – that it’s easy to wonder how much of this record-setting pace is legit, and how much is the softness of the opposition.  In a sense, the Patriots have been like the major college programs that have lined up a lot of cupcakes to make themselves look better than they are.

That, of course, will be changing.  Coming up for NE is Baltimore, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston and Kansas City – presumably with Patrick Mahomes back.  So these questions will soon be answered.  But there are some hints in the game they just played against Cleveland.

Baker Mayfield was a college legend as a three-year starter in Oklahoma, finishing up with the 2017 Heisman Award and going to Cleveland as the first overall draft pick and as the future of the franchise in 2018.

By Game Four, Baker was the starter and was more than mildly impressive in his rookie season.  He produced three 300-yard passing games, threw three or more touchdown passes 4 times, and finished five of his starts with a passer rating of over 100.  In back-to-back games in Weeks Eight & Nine last year (against Atlanta and Cincinnati) Baker completed 36 of 46 passes (78.3%) for 474 yards, throwing 7 touchdowns without an interception – a two-game rating of 149.2.

Baker finished his rookie season with a 93.7 rating and led the formerly moribund Browns to a 6-7 record in his starts.

Against this backdrop, the expectations for 2019 were fairly high in Cleveland.  They went into New England last Sunday just 2-4 on the season, taking a step backward in almost all phases.  Defensively, they ranked twenty-third overall, and twenty-second in scoring defense.  This included ranking thirtieth against the run and thirty-first in average yards per rush against at 5.0.

As for Mayfield, his second look at the NFL has been much more difficult than his first.  Through his first six games, Baker had fallen to thirtieth in passer rating (66.0), thirty-first in completion percentage (56.6%) and last of all qualifying passers in interception rate, as 11 of his first 198 passes this season had been intercepted (5.6%).

In many ways, Baker was just another struggling second-year starter to face the Patriots – and the final numbers from the game suggested much the same.  The Patriots rolled to the victory, 27-13 (gamebook) (summary), while holding Baker to a 79.2 rating.  I don’t know that that tells the entire story, however.

While not earth-shattering, Baker’s 79.2 rating was the highest against New England by a considerable margin this season, and Mayfield – who entered the game next to last in completion percentage – completed 64.5% (20 of 31) of his passes against the team allowing barely more than 50% of the passes thrown against them to be complete.

As befits their season, Cleveland turned the ball over on three consecutive first-quarter snaps.  The first – running back Nick Chubb’s first fumble of the game – was returned for a touchdown by the defense.  The second – Nick Chubb’s second fumble of the game – denied the Browns a scoring opportunity.  The third – a bizarre interception of a shovel pass – gave the Patriot offense a short field and set up another New England touchdown.  A Halloween-esque first quarter had left the Browns in a 17-0 hole.

It was too deep a deficit for Cleveland to overcome, but from that point of the game on they outscored New England 13-10.  There were a few pieces of the Brown game plan that worked better than one might have thought – pieces that other teams (like the Ravens) might incorporate into future game plans against the Patriots.

First of all, Cleveland ran the ball against New England.  And they didn’t stop running even after they fell behind early.  Ten first-half rushing plays were followed by 12 second-half rushes.  The Browns finished with 159 rushing yards.

The Patriots came into the game ranked second against the run (allowing 74.7 yards per game), but it was a fairly hollow honor.  With big early leads, New England had defended just 126 running plays – the fewest in the league.  The few previous times the Pats had needed to defend the run for the full four quarters, they showed some vulnerability there.  Buffalo ran for 135 against them in Week Four, and Washington added 145 more the next week.

I am unconvinced that New England defends the run as well as their defensive resume suggests, and that team (like Baltimore) that will run with great conviction will give them more than a little problem.

The second offensive goal against the Patriots is one that Cleveland managed only sporadically.  After watching the Patriot defense for 8 weeks, I am convinced that 75% of their effectiveness is the man coverage skills of Stephon Gilmore and a high-blitzing pass rush.  (The Patriots entered the game with 26 sacks on the season – ranking second – and a sack percentage of 9.7% – third best in the NFL.)

Baker saw blitzes on 15 of his 37 drop-backs (just slightly over 40%).  On most other occasions, New England showed blitz, but then dropped out.

The pressure packages had their successes, as Mayfield went down 5 times, was hurried on 3 other occasions, and forced to scramble once.  But when the line could give Baker time, he showed that the New England secondary wasn’t nearly as impenetrable as advertised.

This happened on Mayfield’s touchdown pass.  As this was only the second touchdown pass allowed by the Patriots all season, you might think it was a remarkable design.  As it turns out, the most unusual thing about it was that the quarterback wasn’t running for his life.

Tight end Demetrius Harris ran a deep corner route from the New England 21 with linebacker Don’t’a Hightower in coverage.  But he was not the only receiver open.  The two underneath crossing routes were also open – Jarvis Landry running away from Gilmore, and Pharaoh Brown with a couple of steps on Patrick Chung.

The ability to slow down the New England pass rush might be the single most important imperative for all future Patriots opponents.  On this play, the Patriots showed blitz, but backed out.

One significant adjustment that Cleveland made in its approach was a focus on quick decisions by Mayfield in the short passing game.  This was a double-edged sword.  On the plus side, this approach allowed Baker his high completion percentage and somewhat frustrated the pass rush.  This was mostly evident in the game’s first half when Mayfield was sacked just once, and completed 11 of 14 passes (78.6%), but for just 80 yards – which was the weakness in the scheme.  On more than one occasion, third wide receiver Antonio Callaway was running away from his defender on a go route.  But in all of those occasions, Baker had already decided where he was going with the football.

Realizing that Gilmore will always inhibit the production of your top receiving threat, future New England opponents should understand the value of a third receiver with deep-threat speed.  In this game it was Callaway causing problems for J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty – two very good corners, but not in Gilmore’s class.

Of course, whether your quarterback can hold the ball long enough to find that receiver is another issue.

One of the very interesting things that Cleveland did in New England was to deny the Patriot pass defense a clear set of targets.  I think they only did this once, but the concept is worth further exploration.

With 49 seconds left in the third quarter, Cleveland lines up with only one wide receiver (Odell Beckham) on the field.  They have three tight ends and running back Dontrell Hilliard.  There is no one in the backfield with Baker, as Beckham is part of a bunch of three receivers (Ricky Seals-Jones and Brown) to Baker’s right, and Hilliard and Harris wide to his left.

Without a bevy of wide receivers to focus on, New England responded with man coverage, but only against the three receivers bunched to the right.  On the offensive left side, they played zone.  With the Patriots rushing just three, and Mayfield understanding what New England was doing, he was able to wait long enough for linebacker Jamie Collins to drift toward the center of the field before delivering a strike to Demetrius Harris, who had settled in one of the soft spots of the zone.

That play gained 12 yards on third and two.

The bottom line is that there are opportunities here.  A team like Baltimore that will keep running the ball will give themselves the best advantage.  Moreover, any team that runs against New England as many as thirty times in a game will almost certainly quiet down the blitz tendencies – another thing I think Baltimore could do.

But it will still – at some point – come down to making plays in the passing game.  At some point, Lamar Jackson will have to make the same kind of read that Mayfield made, and throw to the right receiver against the right coverage.  And this is where I am not yet convinced.  Lamar has made strides, but he will have to show me he can make these kinds of reads.

Tomorrow night’s New England-Baltimore matchup is one of the most intriguing of the season’s first half.  The Ravens are not a team built for coming from behind.  If the Patriots get up on them early, it could spell trouble for Baltimore.  However, I also don’t think that New England is built to take 25-30 rushing plays against that vaunted defense.  If Baltimore stays close and keeps running, I think that will spell trouble for the Patriots.

With New England at 8-0, and Baltimore 5-2, this game could have significant consequences as far as playoff seeding goes.  By this time tomorrow night, we will know a lot more about both of these teams.

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