Should we be concerned about the Patriots? The defense just gave up 481 yards and 35 first downs to the Bills — the Bills! Is it time to start pressing the panic button, sounding alarms that Bill Belichick, the defensive mastermind, has lost his touch?
The questions that will arise this week following New England’s narrow 37-31 win over the Bills are no different from what has been asked earlier this season. And last season. And the season before.
Belichick will be the first to tell you, though, that the most important statistic is wins, and the Patriots are embodying that, and have been for the past three seasons when the defense has been below average, to put it mildly.
In 2010, the Patriots posted a league-best 14-2 record with a defense that ranked 25th overall, 30th against the pass and 32nd on third downs. They were also first in turnover ratio (by a mile) and eighth in points allowed.
Last season, the 13-3 Patriots were 31st in total defense, 31st against the pass and 28th on third-down defense. They finished third in turnover ratio and 15th in points allowed.
The bend-but-don’t-break defense has done exactly that for the past two seasons, and the Pats went 27-5. So why worry now?
The expectation in Foxborough, thanks to aggressive moves in the draft and free agency, was that this year would be different. The Patriots moved up twice in the draft to get DE Chandler Jones and LB Dont’a Hightower, and both first-rounders have been impact players. They signed S Steve Gregory in free agency, and the veteran has stabilized the back end, when healthy. A 34-13 win over Tennessee in Week One seemed to confirm those moves had strengthened the “D,” though we now know the Titans have plenty of deficiencies on offense.
The defense had its miscues in losses to the Ravens, Cardinals and Seahawks, but the offense got plenty of flak for failing to finish those games. The run defense has been one of the league’s best all season, but the overall numbers have not improved much from what Patriots fans have grown accustomed to.
Injuries have played a role, especially in the secondary, but through 10 weeks New England is 25th in total defense and 29th against the pass. Maybe most alarmingly, the Patriots have given up a league-high 47 pass plays of 20 yards or more.
Sunday’s close win over Buffalo was yet another tough game for Patriots fans to watch. The offense did what it was supposed to do and the defense created key turnovers, but Ryan Fitzpatrick moved the ball with ease, and the Pats needed a Devin McCourty interception in the endzone to avoid a brutal, last-minute loss.
“(The Bills) did a good job and fought us right to the end, but we made the plays that we needed to make,” Belichick told reporters after the game. “It wasn’t perfect, of course; we’ve got a lot of work to do. But in the end, I think the turnovers were the difference and we’ll just move on to Indianapolis.”
Opportunistic football is saving the Patriots, again. They lead the league with a plus-16 turnover margin (23 takeaways). In addition to McCourty’s pick, the Pats recovered a fumble at the goal line and another one deep in Buffalo territory that led to a touchdown.
How much longer can the Patriots play with fire like they have this season? Then again, does it matter?
This team has proven for two years in a row that “yards allowed” can be one of the most misleading stats in football. The Packers finished last in the league in total defense in 2011. The big plays the Patriots have given up should be a concern, but it’s also happening against a secondary that rarely has been at full strength, and when recently acquired CB Aqib Talib gets on the field and S Patrick Chung returns, the secondary should be a lot better.
Of course, Belichick would prefer a better defense, and Patriots fans would love a relaxing Sunday like they had during a 45-7 beat-down of the Rams in London, as opposed to a hold-your-breath, pray-for-a-turnover situation like what occurred in Week 10 against the Bills.
When this season ends, the Patriots are likely to be near the bottom of defensive rankings against the pass, but near the top in turnover margin and, most importantly, wins. Belichick is labeled as a defensive mastermind, and the fruits of that labor have not been very noticeable in recent seasons. But people also will tell you that Belichick understands the trends of the game better than anyone. He knows that this is an offense-first, pass-happy league, and very few teams have a high-powered offense with the complement of a shut-down defense. His offense is the model of what teams around the league are trying to achieve. The defense? Well, it’s far from a perfect group, but plenty of teams would trade in their lower “yards allowed” number for the Patriots’ takeaways.
Lest we forget, the Patriots lead the league in points, a Yogi Berra-esque reminder that the team that scores the most points is in pretty good position to win the game.
Another reminder, this one from critics, will be that the Patriots’ inability to stop big plays on defense has kept them from getting a Lombardi Trophy since 2004. Wins are all that matter, so the Patriots are two-time regular-season champions with leaky defenses, and have a chance at a three-peat. Does it matter? Right now, no — the Patriots are en route to another AFC East title — but another empty-handed postseason with their style of play won’t silence any of those concerned.
This is a results business, though, and the bar is always set high in Foxborough. The Patriots have continued to make it work thanks to a high-octane offense and opportunistic defense to mask the team’s flaws — in the regular season. If this year’s defense is going to live up to expectations, it needs to win the big one to finally put to rest any questions about Belichick’s “D.”