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The Patriots Defense Turns It Around

Malcolm Butler patriots defense

Through four games this season, the Patriots defense had allowed the second most points in the NFL. Tom Brady and the offense were keeping them in games and were the only reason the team was 2-2. The defense allowed 42 points to the Chiefs in the opener, 20 to the Saints, and 33 points each to the Texans and Panthers. That’s an average of 32 points a game.

Opposing offenses had multiple receivers running free.


The Patriots were giving up the second most points, and the most yards (by almost 250 yards) in the National Football League. The headlines were justifiably slamming the performance on the field. Ryan Wilson of wondered if they could be a historically bad defense. Rich Hill at noted that the Patriots defense was making other quarterbacks look like Tom Brady. And they were right.

 Scoring Defense, 2017 Weeks 1-4
RkTeamGWLTW-L%Points ForPoints Allowed


2017 Yards Allowed, Weeks 1-4
RkTeamGWLTW-L%Total YardsTurnovers

The Turnaround

From week five, until today, the Patriots defense has been the stingiest in the NFL. It’s more impressive when you realize this total includes two touchdowns allowed by the Patriots offense. After the 32 points per game in the first four games, the defense has allowed only 14.7 in their next 11 games.

That’s almost a point per game LESS than the NFL leading 15.6 points per game 2016 Patriots defense gave up. It’s actually better than the 14.9 that the 2003 Patriots defense gave up – the fewest of the Belichick era. Obviously, taking the worst four games out isn’t a fair statistical comparison, but that’s not the point. The point is that this defense is much better than people are giving it credit for being.

The defense, which gave up 14 touchdowns in the first four weeks of the season, has only given up 16 in the last 11 weeks. They’ve become a Belichick/Patricia defense.

They bend but don’t break.

Scoring Defense, 2017 NFL, Weeks 5-16
RkTeamGWLTW-L%Points forPoints Allowed

This isn’t to say that it’s been the prettiest defense you’re ever going to see. They’re only 14th in the league in yards allowed in weeks 5-16. But they are giving up 113 yards per game fewer than they were in the season’s first month. (344 vs. 457)

That’s a drastic improvement.

So is the drop in opponents passer rating, from 116.5 – (worst in the NFL)  to 81.6 (10th best). They’ve been better on 3rd down. Better in the red zone.

Why? How?

And this turnaround has been for the most part, without the services of their best defensive player, Dont’a Hightower. They’ve had to get a largely new group of players ready.

The strength of the defense has been the secondary that failed so badly in the first four games of the season became a strength. The defensive communication got better, as one might have predicted that it would. The much-maligned Stephon Gilmore got comfortable in the defense and became a reliable player.

They’re still giving up catches, but they’re contested catches, and the tackling has been much improved. They’re making teams make more plays, and nowhere does that show up better than in red zone defense.

Defense Totals Table (Weeks 1-4)
Defense Totals Table (Weeks 5-16, note Chargers had no Red Zone drives)


If anything explains the turnaround of the Patriots defense, it’s this. From 93% scoring to 63%. 64% touchdowns to 40%. This is how you play defense when you’re limited by the salary cap and without your best defensive player.

You bend and give up yards between the 20s. But you don’t break.

You make the big play when the field gets smaller.


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Mike Cooney
Mike is a lifelong Boston sports fan. He's got a degree in journalism from Northeastern University, and has been writing about sports in various methods since the mid-1990's. He's gotten to meet Bobby Orr, Luis Tiant, Rich Gedman, Nomar Garciaparra, and once shut out Carlos Pena's two twin brothers in a game of foosball at McCoy Stadium.

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