Patriots

How a philosophy switch made the Patriots’ defense one of the league’s best

Over the last two weeks, the Patriots' defense has been arguably the best unit in the NFL. A switch to playing more zone coverage strategy might be why.

Patriots J.C. Jackson
New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson celebrates after his interception return for a touchdown against the Panthers. AP Photo/John Bazemore
Recent Links

The New England Patriots have looked like a new football team after a chaotic start to the season, and they’re doing it, on the surface, the way they planned at the beginning of the season: with a strong running game and defense.

Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, and the Patriots’ rushing attack have trampled opponents behind a revamped offensive line, taking some pressure off of rookie quarterback Mac Jones.

Then, the defense has simply suffocated opposing teams in the past three weeks, allowing just over 14 points per contest in that time frame.

But while both were expected to be a strong factor in the Patriots’ potential success heading into the season, the defensive dominance, in particular, has come about differently than expected.

Advertisement:

Specifically, the team just pulled off an in-season philosophy change that will have opposing offensive coordinators scrambling to re-draw their game plans against a Patriots’ defense hitting its stride.

The key is in watching the pass coverage.

From Weeks 1-7, the Patriots arguably played more man defense than any defense in the league coverage-wise.

During that span, New England had the NFL’s top three cornerbacks in terms of percentage of snaps played in man coverage (minimum of 100 coverage snaps) according to Pro Football Focus: Jonathan Jones (58.8 percent), J.C. Jackson (56 percent), and Jalen Mills (53.7 percent). Among safeties, Devin McCourty (54.3) and Kyle Dugger (51.8) led the league in man coverage rate with Adrian Phillips (49.3) ranking sixth.

In fact, with cornerbacks and safeties combined, the Patriots’ six top defensive backs all ranked in the top 15 through the first seven weeks, with Jones, Jackson, McCourty, and Mills leading the way.

Then, with the Patriots about to play the dynamic Los Angeles Chargers, everything changed.

Over the past two weeks, starting with Week 8 against the Chargers, New England’s four remaining cornerbacks (Jackson, Mills, Myles Bryant, and Joejuan Williams) all rank in the top 10 in zone coverage rate among players with 25 or more coverage snaps. The three safeties (McCourty, Phillips, and Dugger) all sat within the top six at their position during that time span.

Advertisement:

Even Jackson, the team’s best cornerback, has only played man coverage about 22 percent of his snaps the last two weeks.

In short, the Patriots have gone from daring teams to beat them one-on-one–something they could do with a lockdown corner like Gilmore but not so much with Mills–to erasing big-play opportunities and forcing opposing quarterbacks to hold the football longer.

Part of the reason they can do that is Christian Barmore’s emergence as one of the NFL’s best interior pass rushers as a rookie (13th in total pressures among interior defenders) and Matthew Judon’s own relentless assault on opposing quarterbacks (fourth among all NFL defenders in pressures, T-3rd in sacks). Whether lined up together or separately, their dominance makes it possible to routinely get pressure with just four rushers, allowing zone coverage to do its magic.

The magic certainly seems real. Over the last two weeks, the Patriots have posted back-to-back games of 20 pressures for the first time this season and put together their best grades for overall defense and pass coverage, per PFF.

More than that, they’ve put themselves in the conversation as one of the best defensive teams in the NFL.

New England went from a top-15 unit in expected points added per play (EPA/play; 0.018) to the top dog in the league over the past two weeks (-0.285 EPA/play). The big driving factor behind that: their elite pass defense, which is posting a -0.450 EPA/play on opposing quarterback dropbacks that dwarfs the second-place Tennessee Titans’ mark of -0.186.

Passing and rushing defense stats for NFL Weeks 8 and 9 as measured by expected points added per play (EPA/play) allowed by each team. (rbsdm.com)

This two-week stretch puts the Patriots on the level of the team’s dominant 2019 squad, which posted a -0.217 EPA/play overall and a -0.285 EPA/play on opposing dropbacks over the course of that season (both NFL highs).

Advertisement:

This year’s model probably won’t approach such gaudy levels of dominance for the entirety of 2021, but make no mistake: this defense is dealing right now. Anything close to this level of play for the rest of the season will almost certainly put the Patriots back into the playoffs.

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com