Fans in New England have become all too familiar with the phrase “bend but don’t break.” It’s been used to describe several of the teams past defenses. The Patriots allow yards by the wayside, but always hold up strong in the red zone and on third down. Here’s a dive into the maddening style of the New England Patriots defense.
The Maddening Style of the New England Patriots Defense
After the core of the first dynasty had all grown old or moved on elsewhere, the Patriots defense was left in something of a transition period from 2010-2012. This led to a unit that was genuinely terrible in 2011 and for the first half of 2012. However, this new incarnation of the Patriots began midway through 2012 with the trade for cornerback Aqib Talib. Talib wasn’t great in 2012, but his ability to cover the opposing teams number one receiver helped salvage the defense and make it a functional unit. Additionally, his presence at cornerback allowed Devin McCourty to move to safety. McCourty went from being an average cornerback to one of the best safeties in the league.
Talib would be brought back on a one-year deal and play the entire 2013 season with the Patriots. In that season, star linebacker Jerod Mayo would suffer a season-ending injury in week six. Second year linebacker Dont’a Hightower would receive most of the snaps in his place, while first-year rookie Jamie Collins was the top option off the bench behind Brandon Spikes.
While Hightower and Collins would both go on to become stars, 2013 wasn’t the best year for either. Hightower spent his rookie year playing a specialized role. The stress from now being essentially the quarterback of the defense was a huge step, and led to him struggling for the majority of the season. He did eventually find his form for the last month or so of the season, but he admitted that he tried to do too much. As for Collins, he was drafted as a raw prospect and needed a year as a role player before being able to seriously contribute.
The linebacker position is arguably the most important to the Patriots scheme. Mayo’s injury had a serious impact on the upside of that unit. Factor in that and aside from Talib and McCourty, there weren’t any top-tier players on that defense, and Belichick adopted a new defensive strategy.
Instead of being an average all-around defense, Belichick would focus his defense to be great at the two or three most important parts of the game. As far as the 2013 season was concerned, the Patriots were willing to give up early yardage, but would tighten up on third down and in the red zone. This frustrating style of play led to that Patriots unit being ranked 26th in yards, but eighth in points. The strategy worked well enough to send New England to the AFC Championship Game, where they would lose another relatively uncompetitive bout after losing Talib early on.
2014 – 2016: Point and Yard Dominance
The 2014 and 2015 seasons featured a more dominant defense in the traditional sense. Hightower and Collins had officially come into their own are were among the best linebacker duos in football. Defensive end Chandler Jones became New England’s best pass rushing threat since Willie McGinest. Talib had left in free agency, but the Patriots had upgraded with the additions of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Both would leave after one year, but Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler would seamlessly fill their spots in 2015. This defense was stacked from top to bottom, and it led to great end of year rankings. The 2014 Patriots would finish their season ranked eighth in points allowed and 13th in yards allowed despite playing a brutal schedule. The 2015 Patriots would perform similarly well, ranking 10th in points allowed and ninth in yards allowed.
As good as those two years were, all good things must come to an end. Jones, Collins, and Hightower all had just one year left on their contracts, and keeping all three would be impossible. Belichick sold high on Jones and Collins, sending them off in exchange for draft picks. New England still had Hightower, 2015’s secondary, and emerging pass rusher Trey Flowers to keep the ship afloat. While a weak schedule certainly helped, the 2016 defense finished the season ranked eighth in yards and first in points allowed on the season.
2017: Not Quite the Same
In 2017’s free agency, New England lost rotational pass rushers Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, and Rob Ninkovich. Add in the loss of Logan Ryan to Tennessee, and the Patriots had some holes to fill. Longtime Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore was brought in to starting alongside Butler, but the strategy for replacing the edge rushers was a little less conventional.
The Patriots traded for Kony Ealy in the off-season and drafted edge defenders Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise. Of the three, only Wise saw the week one roster. Because depth was so low, New England experimented with giving Hightower a larger role as an edge defender. Hightower would still be listed as a linebacker, but Kyle Van Noy would pick up some of Hightower’s old responsibilities.
With such a drastic turnover during the previous year and a half, a lot relied on injury luck. Unfortunately, 2017 did not carry the same luck as 2016. Hightower suffered an injury in the season opener against the Chiefs, forcing him to miss the next two contests. He would come back, but didn’t look like himself and clearly wasn’t 100 percent. Hightower would suffer another injury in week seven, forcing him to miss the remainder of the season. With him gone, Van Noy would have to basically do what Hightower did in 2013: fill the role of the defensive leader.
Van Noy did well with the new role and played as well as could be hoped. However, Hightower’s injury combined with inconsistent secondary plan and inexperienced defensive linemen led to Belichick’s defense going back to its old roots. The defense wasn’t good enough to pull off a third consecutive top 10 finish in points and yards, so Belichick prioritized points.
Like the back half of 2012 and all of 2013, New England focused on keeping the play in front of them and allowing underneath yardage. Belichick is daring teams to string together 10-15 play touchdown drives. This plan worked in the regular season. New England finished the season ranked 29th in yards, but fifth in points allowed. Take away a terrible September, and the Patriots rank first in points allowed since week five.
The fatal flaw with the bend but don’t break defense lies in the players on the field. Usually this type of defense relies on its most crucial piece to be playing at its very best. From 2012-2013, that was Talib. This season, it’s Van Noy. Talib came in midway through 2012 and basically saved that defense. He was even better in 2013. However, he was injured early in both AFC Championship Games, and the defense looked entirely different. Both defenses had slowed the Ravens and Broncos offenses with Talib on the field, but couldn’t even put up a fight once he left.
The Kyle Van Noy Factor
Van Noy is this year’s Talib. Is he the best player on the Patriots defense? Probably not. That honor would most likely go to McCourty. However, Van Noy is asked to do more than any other player on the team. Van Noy is better than most of the defensive linemen at setting the edge and is easily the best all-around linebacker. So much of what the defense does well relies on Van Noy being out there and playing at his best.
Van Noy missed Weeks 14-16 with a calf injury, and the defense suffered for it. The Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers had their way in back-to-back weeks against the Patriots defense, and Van Noy’s absence was a big reason why. Linebackers Elandon Roberts and David Harris got exposed as weak in pass coverage and inconsistent (at best) in the running game. The defensive ends were incapable of setting the edge on runs, and an off tackle run was at least a guaranteed six yards every time.
Miami absolutely spanked the Patriots, winning 27-20 in a game that was not nearly as close as the score suggested. Normally average quarterback Jay Cutler looked like Hall of Famer Dan Marino. The score could have been higher, but Miami left a lot of points on the field.
Next week against Pittsburgh, the Patriots squeezed out a nail-biting 27-24 win. Despite the victory, the defense still struggled drastically even though Antonio Brown left the game early. Tom Brady and the Patriots offense gave the defense a lead with just 0:53 left in the game. Defending a lead with that little time on the clock shouldn’t be a challenge. Nonetheless, the Patriot defense would have blown it were it not for a Jesse James drop (yes, it was a drop).
Fortunately for New England, Van Noy is on the mend. He was active in Week 17, and will be back to full speed by the playoffs. Adding in a motivated James Harrison should help too. Ultimately, while minimizing yards allowed is good, it’s not what decides football games. At the end of the day, the only stat that matters is the one on the scoreboard. The Patriots have Tom Brady, and nobody is good enough to beat Brady with only field goals. The 2017 defense may not be perfect, but they’re good enough to bring home the another Super Bowl.