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Patriots’ work not complete

Team’s pass defense is a real trouble area

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / October 25, 2011

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Yes, the Patriots are sitting pretty at 5-1 after a bye week. They’re in the driver’s seat for another AFC East title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

And, yes, the defense has improved the past two weeks in victories over the Jets and Cowboys.

But unless the pass defense continues to improve greatly, the odds are seriously stacked against these Patriots making a Super Bowl run no matter how good a season quarterback Tom Brady has.

If the Patriots do even make the Super Bowl this season, coach Bill Belichick certainly will have earned that genius jacket again. Maybe they will stitch “magician’’ on the back, because a trip to Indianapolis would seem to have to come out of thin air.

Belichick may say that statistics are for losers, and a lot of them are, but there are a few numbers every team looks at, and one has to be staring at him right in the face: yards allowed per pass attempt, which historically is one of the most accurate predictors for team and individual success.

The Patriots are allowing 8.47 yards per pass attempt this season. Not only is that worst in the league - barely edging the terrible Colts (8.46) - it’s the worst mark since the 0-16 Lions in 2008 (8.82).

The Patriots’ current mark is the 10th-worst in the NFL since 1970. In franchise history, it is only edged out by the ’89 (8.70) and ’90 (8.68) squads, which ranked fourth and fifth in league futility since the AFL-NFL merger.

Having a number that high almost always leads to failure.

Of the 45 other teams to post yards per pass attempts of 8.0 or more, just four have posted winning records, three advanced to the playoffs, and only the ’83 Seahawks advanced to a conference championship game. None has advanced farther.

The team to advance to the Super Bowl with the highest yards per attempt was the 1976 Raiders, who won it all after posting a 7.32 mark in the regular season (254th highest all-time).

In the years the Patriots have most recently reached the Super Bowl, they were tied for sixth in ’07 (6.4), tied for 14th in ’04 (6.9), first in ’03 (5.6), and tied for 17th in ’01 (6.8).

The guys at Cold, Hard Football Facts take it a step further with net passing yards per attempt. The Patriots are still last in the league (7.9) this season. They were fourth in ’07, 10th in ’04, second in ’03, and 21st in ’01.

The good news for the Patriots is there is still a lot of season remaining, so there is time to continue their improvement.

Considering how much passing is on an uptick this season, allowing 7.5 yards per attempt by the end of the season would seem to get the Patriots into the realm of postseason possibilities.

Assuming teams continue to attempt 39.2 passes per game, the Patriots would need to have their yards allowed drop from 322.2 to 277.2. They allowed 241.5 the previous two weeks to the Jets and Cowboys.

The defense should get at least some help with linemen Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick coming back from the physically unable to perform list, and with more contributions from lineman Albert Haynesworth and cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who each have missed time with injuries.

There also remains the possibility that the 2011 season, with the rules so favoring the offenses and the lockout effect, will buck the heavy historical trend. The Falcons (7.92), Packers (7.84), and Bills (7.81) currently are in the top 100 for worst yards per pass attempt since 1970 and likely will be making postseason runs.

But the Patriots have a lot more room to make up than those teams.

Here’s a further examination of where the Patriots stand at the bye in each of the three units, and where they will look to improve after scouting themselves, thanks to statistics from STATS LLC.

OFFENSE

Coordinator Bill O’Brien’s unit is, as we all suspected, pretty good.

The Patriots lead the league in percentage of first down plays that gain 4 or more yards (57.5 percent; league average 47.2) and points on the first possession of the game. They are second in three-and-out drives (12.3 percent; average 22.5) and third in third-down conversions (53.6/38.8). Inside the 30, the Patriots score a touchdown 55.6 percent of the time, which is fifth in the league.

Brady continues to play at a high level and will be battling with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for league Most Valuable Player. Brady is second to Rodgers in yards per attempt (9.9 to 9.1), net yards per attempt (8.9 to 8.5), and rating (125.7 to 104.8). He has also excelled against the blitz. His 126.8 rating is third in the league.

Brady will be looking to cut down on his interceptions. His eight picks through six games is his highest number to this point since throwing nine in ’02. Brady is on pace to throw 21, which would far exceed his career-high of 14 set in ’02, ’04, and ’05.

Patriots receivers lead the league with 1,016 yards after the catch (the average is 689).

Half of the Patriots’ rushing attempts gain 4 or more yards, which is tied for second in the league. It’s somewhat puzzling that the Patriots have only run 39.7 percent of the time (24th in the league), but when you have Brady . . .

DEFENSE

There is no question that the biggest improvement must be in tackling. In the first six games, the Patriots missed 38 tackles that yielded another 283 yards for their opponents, according to Globe tabulations. Two games were responsible for the inflated numbers, 10 for 97 against Buffalo and 12 for 72 against the Cowboys.

Safety Josh Barrett, who hasn’t played the past 2 1/2 games, and cornerback Devin McCourty lead the team with six missed tackles each, with Gary Guyton (five) and Jerod Mayo (four) close behind.

The safeties - Barrett, Patrick Chung, Sergio Brown, and James Ihedigbo - have a combined 14 missed tackles (36.8 percent).

The defense also must do better on first down, on which it is allowing a league-worst 7.83 yards (the average is 5.80). The Patriots have had 104 plays go for 4 yards or more on first down. They’ve held opponents under 4 yards 81 times.

The Patriots are also last in the league with 40 plays of more than 20 yards allowed (26 is the average).

The unit also ranks in the bottom third of the league in red zone third down conversions (50 percent; 37.9), opponent yards per play inside the 30 (4.79; 3.55), completions over 20 yards (37; 21), opponents yards after the catch (907; 689), percentage of first-down passes gaining 4 or more yards (61.7 percent; 51.8), percentage of first-down rushes gaining 4 or more yards (48.7 percent; 42.9), and rushing defense on first down (5.17 yards; 4.44).

The good news is the Patriots are fourth in the league with 50 penalties against their opponents, are tied for third with three red zone takeaways, and are tied for 11th in the most important category with 135 points allowed.

SPECIAL TEAMS Both kick coverage units have done well. The Patriots are eighth in kickoff coverage with opponents starting on average at the 20.6 yard line. They have yet to give up a punt return over 20 yards (the league average is two).

The Patriots are 27th in kickoff return average at 21.6. On punt returns they are ninth with an 11.6 average.

Their average starting position after a kickoff is the 22.5 yard line (13th in the league).

Stephen Gostkowski is 24th in the league with 40.5 percent touchbacks.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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