New England’s Defense A Force To Reckon With

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

 

Coaching Corner 15: How The Giants “Coughlin’d” A Game Away

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For those who don’t know: Coaching Corner is a weekly column I write for UConn’s local student newspaper, the Daily Campus. Inspired by ESPN writer Bill Barnwell and his retired “Thank You For Not Coaching” articles for the now-defunct Grantland, I take a look at the three worst coaching decisions of each NFL weekend and try to analyze the statistical and underlying factors for their situation.

Last week was finals, which prevented me from having the time to write a column. This week, however, we are going to look at the anatomy of one collapse: how Tom Coughlin  blew the New York Giants’ chance at beating the undefeated juggernaut Carolina Panthers

Coughlin’s first mistake wasn’t late into game – it came just under five minutes into the first quarter, when neither team had scored and the Giants were on Carolina’s 41-yard line. Facing a fourth and one situation, Coughlin decided to punt, most likely because he was facing an elite defense and because it may have been too early in the game to make an aggressive decision.

Of course, these arguments completely fall apart when considering how successful teams are likely to be in short yardage situations, even on fourth down. Since 2000, in every regular season fourth and one conversion attempt, when the scoring margin is still within one possession or tied, teams have converted them at an average 68.1 percent. In order for Coughlin to value field position over going for it, he would have to think that New York’s chances of failing to get one yard were astronomically lower than the average offense. Keep in mind that the Giants heading into Week 14 ranked No. 16 in the NFL for offensive DVOA according to Football Outsiders. Even taking into account the strength of Carolina’s defense, do the odds really go against New York?

You don’t even need statistics to defend going for it – just use common sense and think about the risk and reward of each decision. Choosing to punt has little to no upside and gives Carolina control of the ball. Going for it may end up in failure and slightly less field for the Panthers to cover to score, but there’s an upside of retaining the ball and having an opportunity to score points – which is incredibly valuable against a 13-0 team.

Coughlin passed another chance of going for it on fourth and one, this time while down 14-7. Though this was from the Giants’ 29-yard line and came with just about 90 seconds left in the half, consider that the Panthers were about to receive the ball at the beginning of the third quarter either way.

The terrible coaching decisions didn’t end there. After Carolina scored, leaving about 15 seconds left into the half and now up 21-7, Coughlin called a running draw play to close out to half. In previous editions of Coaching Corner, I’ve talked before about halftime draw plays essentially being an incredibly high-risk and low-reward play call. Let’s take a look at what the statistics say about them.

Out all non-quarterback kneel rushing plays this season that happened with less than 30 seconds left in the second quarter and within their own territory, none have resulted in a touchdown. Even if we discount numerical evidence and think anecdotally, the Kansas City Chiefs blew a game earlier this season because of a halftime draw that ended up in a fumble recovery for a touchdown, albeit near the end of the fourth quarter in a tie game. Running a draw play near the end of the half is pointless, risks injury and could result in a horrible turnover. If Coughlin shied away from a deep-throw attempt because of a risk for an interception, why not kneel?

As the game went on, it got uglier, both within its score (Carolina leading 35-7) and the physical altercations between each team’s opposing players – specifically one regarding a man whose name fittingly rhymes with “oh hell; deck him.”

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Golly gee – who could I be talking about when I say “oh hell; deck him?”

Despite their head coach’s constant blundering, the Giants rallied back. After converting a fourth and two that Coughlin basically had no excuse to play passively, they scored 28 unanswered points. Unfortunately for New York fans, Coughlin had just one more mistake to make.

They had saved all three of their timeouts, which is a good thing, but the Giants forgot to  use any of them – except when Coughlin tried to “ice” Carolina kicker Graham Gano after the Panthers had already moved their way into New York territory and with only five seconds left on the clock. Because choosing to use the timeouts you’ve saved up all game on icing a kicker over getting your team the ball back is so valuable.

Trusting the defense to force Carolina to punt is acceptable, but after failing to keep them out of his team’s territory, Coughlin’s number one priority should have been ensuring that there was enough time left on the clock for his offense to mount a comeback considering there was just under two minutes left. Even intentionally letting the Panthers score would have probably been a better use of resources once there were about 45 seconds left on the clock.

Another decision that struck me while re-watching the game was Coughlin’s decision to pass on first down with about 128 seconds left. Though it didn’t stand out as immediately bad, abandoning the run throughout the drive reeked of odd desperation from a team that was down only

Whether through wimping out on fourth downs, lazily calling for halftime draws, botching timeouts and even not benching a player for literally punching an opponent, Coughlin, a fairly successful NFL head coach, gave a masterpiece showing of how not to coach a game. It was, without a doubt, the worst coaching performance of the year and especially disappointing given Coughlin’s Super Bowl-winning legacy.

This is nothing new for Giants fans, who have watched their team go 3-7 in games decided by one possession. At 6-8 in the NFC East, New York’s playoff chances aren’t dead, but they’re unlikely because of how many games the Giants have given away. They’re only a game behind first-place Washington, but New York has to beat the current NFC Wild Card leader Minnesota Vikings on the road and then play a tough home game against the Philadelphia Eagles, who are also fighting for their playoff lives.

With just two more weeks into the NFL season, coaching matters more than ever – and as the Giants are watching their playoff hopes slip away, last Sunday’s horrendous coaching in a close game, even if familiar, has to hurt more than ever. After several years of rumors surrounding Coughlin’s job security with the Giants, it looks like his time may finally be running out.