Hannable: Breaking down how Patriots defense has turned things around since Week 4

Ryan Hannable
November 21, 2017 - 10:38 am

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

Remember at the end of September when it seemed like the sky was falling in New England with the Patriots following a 2-2 start and more specifically the poor play from the defense? 

Well, now at the end of November the Patriots have won six straight games and the defense is playing like one of the better defenses in the entire league.

After Week 4, the Patriots were allowing the second-most points per game in the entire NFL with 32, but now after Week 11 they are all the way up to 12th, allowing 20.3 points per game and just 12.5 in their last six.

How has the defense been able to turn things around? Simply by doing the little things a lot better than it did in the first four weeks.

"It's so crazy because it's the same stuff I say each and every week," safety Duron Harmon told reporters in Mexico City on Sunday following the Patriots’ 33-8 win over the Raiders. "It's literally just us continuing to get better, continuing to learn from the mistakes, being better than the team we were the week before."

The Patriots still are allowing a lot of yards, as they are last in the NFL allowing 401.9 yards per game, but the key has been not allowing teams to score points. This is where the doing the little things better comes in.

It didn’t take long for the Patriots to realize they just wouldn’t be able to force a bunch of three-and-outs, so the defense focused on other things that it could be good at. This was mostly situational things, including red zone defense and eliminating the big plays allowed.

In the first four games, the Patriots were allowing their opponents to score touchdowns on 57 percent of their red zone trips. Over the last six games, that number has dropped to 38 percent. This is a major reason why the points per game have dropped so much, as teams are being forced to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. Overall, the Patriots are 13th in the NFL in red zone defense.

The biggest issue the first four weeks was the number of big plays allowed.

It wasn’t like opposing teams were the sole reason, either. New England was having a number of breakdowns in the secondary, mostly communication related, and offenses were taking full advantage. In the first four games, the Patriots allowed 19 passing plays of at least 20 yards. In the six-game win streak, the Patriots have allowed 18. So, one play fewer in two less games. Clearly, this aspect has drastically been improved.

“At the beginning of the year, we were good, but we’d give up a touchdown and one chunk play, but now, we’re more consistent with the big plays,” Harmon said. “We’re more consistent with our run game, our pass game. Everything is more consistent.”

The Patriots don’t have many superstar players on defense, as they likely will have no more than two Pro Bowlers. It also lost its leader in Dont’a Hightower to a season-ending shoulder injury roughly a month ago. A good majority of the credit for the turnaround needs to go to defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and coach Bill Belichick.

It appears the two saw what they were working with and focused their attention in practice to situational plays, most notably in the red zone and eliminating the big plays allowed. This has been the biggest key to the turnaround and looking back at years past, it really shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise that it was coming. Year after year the Patriots always seem to get better as the year goes on and in the end turns out to be just fine.

“We always start slow every year, and midway through the season, we just start bonding and making plays and getting better as a group,” Malcolm Butler said. “It’s just happening now.”

Comments ()