Excelling in “bend-but-don’t break” tactics, most New England defenses during Bill Belichick’s tenure have given Tom Brady and Co. unmatched margins for error. This season’s Patriots are not bending or breaking, producing sobering results for their first seven opponents (and likely the rest of the AFC).
The greatest defensive mind in NFL history opted for a more hands-on role this season, and after the best defensive performance in Super Bowl history, Belichick has assembled what could become his masterwork.
On its way to a mind-boggling 10th consecutive bye in the playoffs, New England (7-0) has surrendered 6.9 points per game -– the third-best mark through seven games in 80 years. Twenty-one of those 48 points came from defensive or special teams touchdowns. The other two teams to allow less than a touchdown per game in this span -– the 1946 Browns and the ’77 Falcons –- played in much friendlier eras for defenses.
Only one defense this century, the 2006 Bears, exited its seventh game having yielded fewer than 10 points per contest. The ‘06 Ravens were the last team to end a season allowing fewer than 13 points per game; even that came in a less-restrictive defensive period. The 2010s’ player-safety-driven rule changes lowered the standard for what constitutes dominant defense. The Patriots executing on a throwback level adds intrigue to a time when defensive play is often overlooked.
The obvious caveat: This has come against the NFL’s easiest schedule. The Pats’ first seven opponents are 6-25. Two of them -– the Jets and Redskins –- trotted out backup quarterbacks, and the one team that posed a threat (the Bills) lost quarterback Josh Allen during that game. This generates understandable skepticism.
Before minimizing the Pats’ work, consider what a similarly constructed defense did in New England’s 13-3 win in Super Bowl LIII. The Rams averaged 32.9 points per game in 2018; they became the second team to fail to score at touchdown in a Super Bowl, providing a good indicator of this latest Patriots defense’s legitimacy. So does New England’s margin of victory. Only 1920’s Buffalo All-Americans outscored opposition by more than the Patriots (plus-175) through seven games.
Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric takes era and strength of schedule into account; the Patriots boast the best defensive DVOA figure through seven games (-49.7%) in the metric’s 33-year history. Their overall DVOA through seven contests trails only the 2007 Pats and ’91 Redskins -– the metric’s all-time kingpins.
In the off-season, the Patriots went through a staff reorganization that forced their 20th-year head coach to become de facto defensive coordinator. 2018 defensive coordinator Brian Flores became Dolphins head coach, taking Patriots defensive assistants Patrick Graham and Josh Boyer with him. Expected DC Greg Schiano backed out of an agreement, leaving the Pats with Belichick and a host of inexperienced defensive assistants. Belichick reclaiming the play-calling reins on defense adds to the already considerable advantage he provides.
By virtue of this defense’s mastery, All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore and 10th-year safety Devin McCourty could join now-good-again linebacker Jamie Collins as Defensive Player of the Year candidates. The Patriots’ 18 picks lead the league by nine and are the most through seven games in 23 years . Despite parting ways with another integral pass-rusher (Trey Flowers), the Patriots have allowed one passing touchdown –- Golden Tate’s Week 6 juggling act –- besting every defense (through seven games) from the past 30 years.
Belichick’s defenses have consistently given Brady an edge his rivals rarely possess; this one could give the 42-year-old legend an even stronger safety net. New England has deployed 15 top-10 scoring defenses since 2001. But only seven of those ranked in the top-10 in yards allowed. These Patriots’ 1,562 yards yielded are 148 fewer than any other team has permitted this decade through seven games.
The defending Super Bowl champions face the 23rd-toughest schedule the rest of the way. The non-threatening status of the Bills, Dolphins and Jets during the second leg of the Patriots’ dynasty has given Belichick leeway to fine-tune. Considering the state of the AFC nearing the mid-season point, New England looks to have the same luxury this season. That will help a team still sorting out things on offense, one that now includes receiver Mohamed Sanu.
Through a parity lens, this looks grim. But those who appreciate defense, this Patriots march should be a welcome change. They are battling celebrated defenses from past NFL eras, providing a refreshing counterbalance to this decade’s offense boom –- one that has diminished the impact of certain statistics. The stats amassed by the Patriots’ defense matter. And Belichick masterminding this effort -– in what could be Brady’s Patriots swan song -– further elevates the 2019 season.
This Patriots start raises the stakes for the forthcoming old guard-new guard match-ups involving Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson. Because by the time the Pats tangle with the AFC’s up-and-comer quarterback class, it does not appear likely their defense will have been exposed.