If you asked most people what kept the 12-2 and defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots so good this season, they would probably state something along the lines of quarterback Tom Brady being an age-defying time wizard or head coach Bill Belichick selling his soul to the devil. However, in 2015, you could argue that the Patriots’ defensive growth has been the biggest treat for their fans.
It’s easy to see why there were concerns with the defense heading into the season. The Patriots basically replaced both of their starting corners – one who was considered by sportswriter Robert Mays to be the best in the NFL – with a second-year back-of-the-rotation player and a situational backup slot corner. Don’t forget: the Patriots also let go of fan favorite Vince Wilfork and had question marks surrounding the health of two of their younger defensive linemen: first rounders Malcolm Brown and Dominique Easley. Their signings of journeyman afterthoughts like Bradley Fletcher and Tarell Brown did little to appease their fanbase.
The result? According to Football Outsiders, a defense that’s even better than last season, when New England had Darrelle Revis.
The first thing that might surprise you is how well the Patriots have defended opposing No. 1 receivers, where they rank No. 5 in the NFL and even better than last year. This is probably not an indication that second-year corner Malcolm Butler is definitely better than a sure-fire Hall of Fame stud like Revis, but it’s hard to argue against Butler and Logan Ryan being one of the league’s most effective tandems. Solid play from their safeties in former second team All-Pro Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung, has solidified New England’s secondary as a well-respected and excellent unit this season.
It’s difficult to tell which member of the Patriots’ secondary has been their star. While Butler initially looked shaky at the start of the season against the real-life-Spiderman Antonio Brown, New England’s Super Bowl hero has improved throughout the season – with exceptional play against DeSean Jackson and Sammy Watkins, holding both to a combined six catches and 54 yards on 12 targets. The latter didn’t even get any yards until late into the game, when he literally made a one-hand catch. Save for allowing a blown 87-yard touchdown that was also the fault of McCourty blowing a tackle and making the play look worse than it should have been, Butler also delivered one of the best three quarters played by a corner this year, allowing only three catches for 17 yards on 11 targets against Odell Beckham Jr. This included knocking out what could have been a game winning touchdown pass out of Beckham’s hands. It’s hard to ignore the disastrous 87-yard play, but consider that if Butler doesn’t adjust and put down the clamps, New England most likely isn’t even in a position to win.
Malcolm Butler and Odell Beckham Jr. embraced after the game. Butler spoke of the two having fun jawing all game pic.twitter.com/DeKUHKSky3
— Ryan Hannable (@RyanHannable) November 16, 2015
Conversely, New England also will occasionally allow Logan Ryan to cover the opposing team’s best wideout, albeit with safety help over the top from both McCourty and the rising Duron Harmon. While this is fairly common for defenses without top-caliber corners to do, New England’s faith in both their No. 1 corner and the rest of their secondary has paid off. Take a game against the Denver Broncos, when the Patriots held cyborg and star receiver Demaryius Thomas to one catch for 36 yards on 13 targets. Skeptics can also look about two weeks ago, when New England essentially neutralized DeAndre Hopkins, holding him to one catch for five yards by the end of the first half. Hopkins finished with three catches and 52 yards on six targets, but most his yards came on a 40-yard catch that happened while New England led 27-6 with about 11 minutes left in the game.
Of course, part of why New England’s secondary has been so successful comes from their pass rush, which is also tied with Denver for having the most sacks in the NFL. There’s no doubt that a consistent pass rush can greatly aid a defense and lower the amount of time that a quarterback has to make a throw – thus often forcing the opponent’s offense to make quicker, frequently riskier and less optimal decisions.
Like their secondary, the Patriots’ front seven has their talent spread apart. Former first round pick Chandler Jones leads the team with 12.5 sacks, but has received help from offseason pickup Jabaal Sheard, veteran Rob Ninkovich, and star linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. According to Pro Football Focus’ overall player grades, Sheard in particular has been the most valuable defensive player for the Patriots, the No. 11 edge defender across the league and its No. 5 run stopper among defensive ends. I don’t know if I’d be that bullish due to the amount of attention and double teams that a player like Jones has been commanding from offensive linemen, but both his development and the success of Sheard have been unarguably commendable and important to how much New England’s pass rush has created pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season.
Take into account the level of expected excellence from both Hightower and Collins, as well as returning veteran linebacker Jerod Mayo, and the level of injuries that the Patriots have suffered this season, with games missed from Sheard, Easley, Hightower and McCourty – New England’s defense might actually be better than the stats indicate. Make no mistake: this is the best defense the Patriots have had since almost going 19-0.
Although New England’s defense isn’t yet elite or on the level of a team like Denver or Seattle, their relative youth among their core players is a sign that New England has quite a bit of defensive talent. Patriots fans would not only be smart, but also have good reason to believe in this unit not just through the cold winter nights of the playoffs, but also for years to come. Maybe Belichick really did sell his soul to the devil.