Last few weeks proved Patriots defense was overrated, but narrative can still change

Ryan Hannable
December 31, 2019 - 6:00 am
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FOXBOROUGH — Remember back in late October when the Patriots were 8-0 and their defense was allowing just 7.6 points per game to go along with 25 turnovers?

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Some, including former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest on Dale & Keefe, said it was the best Patriots defense they had ever seen — better than some of the units in the early 2000s when the team won three out of four Super Bowls led by that side of the ball.

Well, maybe that assessment wasn’t totally accurate.

While the Patriots defense still finished No. 1 overall (275.9 yards per game) for the first time in the Bill Belichick era, as well as No. 1 in scoring (14.1 points per game), it is not the dominant unit many said it was earlier in the year.

Just look at the last three games against the Bills, Bengals and Dolphins — ranked 24th, 26th and 27th on offense respectively — where the Patriots defense got bullied around for various points in those games. 

Against the Bengals it was early on when Joe Mixon ran all over them, breaking tackles left and right. Then at home the following week against Buffalo, the unit gave up a few big plays, including a 53-yard touchdown from Josh Allen to John Brown. Finally, it was Sunday against Miami when Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 320 yards and led the Dolphins on a game-winning, 75-yard touchdown drive with under four minutes left where seemingly the entire secondary got picked on.

Great defenses don’t allow those things to happen, especially against some of the worst offenses in football. 

While we’re not saying the Patriots defense is bad or anything like that, it’s just not as good as many were making it out to be. That came from the unit capitalizing on facing poor opponents to start the season and then failing to produce at the same rate when the competition got better. The Patriots started the year 8-0, but only played one playoff team (Bills) during that stretch.

The difference in numbers for the defense against teams who made the playoffs compared to teams who did not make the playoffs are staggering.

In 10 games against non-playoff teams, the Patriots allowed an average of 10 points per game, 252.2 yards and forced 27 turnovers. In six games against playoff teams, the Patriots allowed an average of 20.8 points per game, 315.3 yards and forced nine turnovers.

With that being said, the Patriots defense has the chance to change the narrative beginning this week. 

‘We got to step it up," cornerback Stephon Gilmore said after the loss to Miami. "... We just have to go back, practice hard and correct some things we need to do right and go from there.”

At this point, the Patriots offense is what it is. It certainly isn’t great by any means, but with Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels, it’s going to find a way to score just over 20 points a game. Starting this week against Tennessee, the Patriots defense need sto find a way to limit its opponents to fewer than 20 points.

The Titans have scored 20 or more points in 10 straight games and the Patriots have not won a game this season when allowing more than 20 points. They are 0-4 when allowing 20-plus points and 12-0 when they don't.

It’s pretty simple — 20 is the magic number.

If the unit can hold opponents under 20 points this week and even potentially next week against Kansas City, the narrative changes. If it accomplishes that against two of the better offenses in the league, it can be argued the unit is truly a No. 1 ranked defense.

While it certainly won’t be easy, if this Patriots defense is in fact as good as we think it can be, it will rise to the occasion and bounce back after a poor end to the season. 

Related: Bill Belichick on OMF: 'I have a lot of confidence in this team'