(Should have been "defense" not "defines" but the software won't let me correct the typo)
Statistics never tell the whole story, but they do provide some interesting hints about what a team is likely doing well and where it likely needs to improve. Looking at the Pats' final regular season defensive statistics for all 16 games, here are a few things I thought were interesting:
- The average NFL defense gave up 346 points this year. The Pats defense was better than average, giving up 318 points. The range this year was from just 218 points given up for Seattle to a whopping 438 points given up for Minnesota. Points given up is the best way to judge a defense, so the Pats ended up as a good defense, but not an elite one. Maybe without the injuries they would have been closer to that elite level, but to be elite they need to get closer to the 270 points given up mark.
- The Pats D gave up a lot of yards this year--5,969 total. This is about 400 yards more than average. It's not extreme--the worst this year was the Cowboys at 6,645. But it's also nothing like Seattle's superb 4,378. While the Pats are below average on total yards given up, they did better when you consider that a relatively large number of plays were run against them (1,118 compared with an average of 1,041). Yards given up per play were just 5.3, which is very slightly better than the 5.4 average. First downs given up per game were a bit worse then the average of 19.9, at 21.1 and 3rd down percentage was a weaker than average 42%. Teams were running lots of plays against the Pats but they were only picking up average yards on those plays. Still, they were getting first downs and moving the ball fairly well. These stats, combined with relatively low points given up, suggest that the Pats defense was not great at getting off the field, but was still effective at making key stops when needed. I don't like the term "bend but don't break" because I don't really think anyone wants to "bend," but there does seem to be a bend but don't break element to this defense. Maybe more important, though, is this suggests our special teams were very good. In fact, Football Outsiders says the Pats defense had the advantage of their opponents having to start their drives, on average, at the 24 yard line (third best in the league). The defense owes Matthew Slater a very nice dinner this offseason. Good kick coverage may be the primary reason why our defensive points given up number is so low!
- When we look at pass defense and rush defense, we see a few things. First, it's probably worth pointing out that NFL teams passed on average on 58% of plays this year and ran on 42%. "Balance" in the NFL today means passing on 6 out of 10 plays and running on 4 out of 10. The Pats were run against 43% of the time and passed against 57% of the time, so there was nothing unusual or skewed in the play mix used against them. I suspect teams tried to run against us, but ended up passing more than they wanted because of game situations. We gave up 4.5 yards per carry, which is worse than the 4.2 average. The really good run defenses gave up less than 4 yards per carry (Jets were best at just 3.4, Seattle and a few others were in the 3.9 or 3.8 area) and the really bad run defenses gave up closer to 5 yards per carry (the worst was the Bears at 5.3 per carry, but most of the weaker run defenses were more in the 4.6, 4.7 area). Run defense wasn't a strength (no surprise with the injuries to Wilfork, Kelly, and Mayo), and we ended up giving about 400 more rushing yards than average, but we also weren't run against as heavily as you might expect. Again, game situations probable forced more passing from our opponents.
- When we look at pass defense a couple of things stand out. First, we gave up a lot of yards per completion--an average of 12.3 yards per completion, against an average for the league of 11.6. The range for the league went from a low of 9.9 (Seattle) to a high of 12.8 (KC). Pats were just slightly higher than average in interceptions (we got 17 against an average of 16). Surprisingly given the perception that we lacked a pass rush, we were better than average in sacks (48 against an average of 40 and fifth best in the league). What really made the difference for us in the passing game was the low completion rate we held our opponents to. Only 57% of attempts against us were completed (fourth best in the league and well below the the 61% average). High sack totals and low completion rates meant pass plays overall netted 6.0 yards per play. This is a better number than the 6.2 average. While completions went for long yardage, completions were relatively hard to get. This suggests that a key to our defense's success this year was getting incompletions on enough pass plays to stop drives. We gave up a fair number of yards, we allowed teams to run a lot of plays, but the key to mounting long drives and scoring is good efficiency in the pass game, and our defense did a decent job of preventing teams from being that efficient.
Overall, when I look at the defensive stats, I see two keys: first, good special teams play that forced our opponents to mount long drives to score, and second, the ability to force enough incompletions to break drives even if we were bending a bit more than desirable.