The Truth About The Patriots Defense

They're making a case to be one of the NFL's greatest units ever

Seatacular, Flickr
  • Led by their defense, the New England Patriots improved to 8-0 in Bill Belichick’s 300th win.

  • The Pats are doing it with takeaways, lapping the league with their +17 turnover margin. New England ranks first in the NFL in both sacks (31) and interceptions (19)

  • With elite talent and the best defensive game-planner in the business, the Patriots defense is the best we’ve seen in years.

  • The Patriots defense has allowed four total touchdowns this season and has scored four total touchdowns. 

  • The Patriots as a team have allowed an NFL-low 61 points to be scored on them this year, but the defense was responsible for allowing just 40 of them.

New England’s Latest Victims

The Browns need big plays on offense to put up points, which the Patriots knew going in. New England minimized Cleveland’s explosiveness and even when they didn’t, they negated it. The longest play of the day for the Browns came when Nick Chubb broke free for a 44-yard scamper, however he was caught by cornerback Jonathan Jones who ran an estimated 73 yards per Next Gen Stats to strip Chubb of the football, one of the NFL-leading 25 takeaways the defense has created this season. 

That was one of three turnovers forced by the New England Patriots defense, which came on three consecutive plays. Chubb’s fumble was preceded by another fumble from the running back, which was returned by linebacker Dont’a Hightower 26 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead. 

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The Pats defense wasn’t done taking away the football or helping put points up on the scoreboard. On Cleveland’s ensuing possession, defensive end Lawrence Guy intercepted Mayfield’s pass to set up the offense on the Browns 11-yard line. Two plays later, Tom Brady found Julian Edelman for an eight-yard touchdown and what felt like an insurmountable 17-0 lead with the NFL’s best defense. 

Cornerback Stephon Gilmore held Odell Beckham Jr. in check for most of the game, until he finally broke open for a 31-yard pass play late in the fourth quarter with the Patriots comfortably ahead. The aforementioned fumble-forcing Jones did a nice job on Cleveland’s Jarvis Landry when the two were matched up on the slot, as Baker Mayfield was held to 194 yards passing and was sacked five times, twice by defensive tackle Adam Butler. 

Looking Into The Numbers

The Patriots came out like gangbusters to start the season, as they became the first team in the Super Bowl era to not allow a passing or rushing touchdown in the first three games of the season. It wasn’t until the second quarter of Week 4 when the Buffalo Bills kicked a field goal that the Pats allowed a point in the first half of a game, which snapped their NFL-record streak of five games holding the opponent scoreless in the first half (dating back to last season). A feat that had never been done before in NFL history. 

New England also joined the 2012 Chicago Bears as the only defenses with at least 15 sacks (18) and 10 interceptions (10) through four games since the 2000 season. Their 34 total points allowed through five games was the fewest since the 2005 Indianapolis Colts. 

With the NFL’s best record, the Patriots also lead the league with their +189-point differential, which is tied with the 1942 Chicago Bears for the third-highest point differential in the history of the NFL through eight games. 

At the midway-point of the season, the Patriots defense is the most-dominant unit in the NFL. They lead the league in scoring defense, having allowed just 61 points, and 7.6 points per game. Those 61 points are 16 fewer points than the second-best defense in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers, who have played one less game than the defending Super Bowl champs. 

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New England is second in total defense (234 YPG) and passing yards per game, while their elite pass defense leads in the league in opponent’s completion percentage (52.4), yards per pass (5.1), yards per completion (9.8), passing touchdowns allowed (2), interceptions (19), sacks (31), and passer rating (40.6). They’re on pace to have the lowest opponent passer rating since 2000, better than 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs who finished at 42.6.  

The Patriots also lead the league in third-down defense, as they’ve allowed opponents to covert just 15 through eight games (15.6 percent). How are they against the run? No one has given up fewer than the 27 rushing first downs New England has allowed and they’re fifth overall in rush defense (85.3 YPG). 

Turnovers might be where their dominance is most exemplified. New England’s 19 interceptions are nearly double the next highest teams (two teams have 10), which has them with a +17-turnover margin, 10 more than the next highest teams (four teams are at +7). That’s also tied with the 1983 Minnesota Vikings for the fifth-highest turnover differential by a team through eight games since 1970. 

New England’s Best Defense Ever

The combination of elite talent with Belichick’s genius is what makes this defense legit. Maybe the best of the Belichick era considering they’re doing it in a time when everything in the NFL is geared towards to the offense. 

While the head coach is the face of the defense, make no mistake they have stars. 

Safety Devin McCourty is a big part of their turnover-creating machine, as he intercepted a pass in each of the first four games, which is tied for the third-longest streak to start the season in the Super Bowl era. His five picks lead the NFL and he’s playing as well as any defender in the league. 

Right behind him are cornerback Stephon Gilmore and linebacker Jamie Collins Sr., who are tied for third with their three INTs. The best cover corner in the league, Gilmore (10 passes defended) is probably their most important defensive player, while Collins best exemplifies Belichick’s ability to better utilize players (and manage the cap) than the rest of the league. 

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Collins started his career in New England and in his final full season with the Pats he made the Pro Bowl. He was then dealt in-season the following year and after not playing up to his big contract in Cleveland was released by the Browns in March of 2019. Now, in his first year back with New England, Collins is having his best season yet. The linebacker leads the team with his 44 tackles, six sacks, and 10.5 tackles for loss to go with those three interceptions and two forced fumbles. The type of versatile all-around performer Belichick knows how to squeeze the most out of. 

In addition to Collins, eight different Patriots have multiple sacks this season, including four with at least 4.5, two from the defensive line and two from the linebacking corps. They can bring pressure from the edge or up the middle. Couple that ability with their unparalleled secondary depth, this might be the best defense we’ve seen in the NFL in years. 

Moving Onto Baltimore

Moving forward, the schedule will get tougher as in the next five games, the Patriots play the Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans, and Kansas City Chiefs. All but the 4-4 Eagles have winning records. More significantly, that means New England will have to defend Lamar Jackson, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, and Patrick Mahomes. That’s five of the better quarterbacks in the league. 

But don’t fret. No one is better at coming up with different game plans from week to week, customized for specific opponents than Belichick. More than ever, he has the type of scheme-versatile personnel, players like Jamie Collins Sr. who can drop into coverage and rush the passer, as well as unmatched overall defensive depth. Don’t be surprised if Belichick cooks up recipes to slow down the running of Jackson, limit Watson’s big plays down the field, and stifle the creativity that makes Mahomes so special, in a way no other defense in the league could even attempt to do. They simply don’t have the ingredients. 

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