Though the New England Patriots are 9-2 and look to have a playoff spot secured, there are problems on the horizon, particularly with their defence.
Normally stout, the Patriots defence has underwhelmed all season. They’re currently 21st in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA, and are allowing opponents 353 yards per game, 14th in the NFL.
Basic stats don’t necessarily relay how this unit has performed. For instance, the Patriots have given up the third-fewest points in the NFL, but they have also played an easy schedule, with Russell Wilson and Andy Dalton ranking comfortably as the best quarterbacks they have faced.
That the Patriots defence has untypically regressed this season may be reflective of Bill Belichick’s philosophy with his roster. For years, the Patriots have been known for finding gems throughout the league and turning them into reliable and sometimes even star players. However, this year, it may be catching up to the Patriots.
As Tim Rohan of MMQB notes in his profile of Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, Belichick’s confidence in Patricia has grown with the long-running success of the team. Like the rest of the roster, Belichick trusts that the Patriots can cycle through players and still keep their defence consistent. From Rohan:
“New players kept cycling in, and the Patriots kept winning, and Belichick seemed to have an epiphany. If he jettisoned players whose performance dipped, who were approaching a big payday, or who just didn’t fit his culture … Patricia could still take the remaining players and build a defence that would maintain a certain level of play. As Matt Light put it: ‘If [Patricia] can look at a rocket and figure out how the thrust is going to interact with the gravitational force, he can look at the opponent’s scheme and get fairly creative, right?'”
It seems this philosophy — scheme and coaching over raw talent — has caught up with the Patriots.
Rohan continues, noting the team’s struggles on the defensive end.
“Now two-thirds into the season, the Patriots defence is still searching for its identity. It looks passive at times and seems to lack the firepower of years past, and the Boston media has begun criticising Patricia.”
“It is perhaps the most difficult task Belichick has ever given Patricia, his resident rocket scientist. Can he take those available players and build a classic Patriots defence by January?”
As Boston Globe’s Ben Volin wrote after the Patriots shocking decision to trade Jamie Collins in October, Bill Belichick has slowly dismantled a once-strong defence.
Collins was an athletic Pro-Bowl playmaker who a year ago had 5.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, and an interception. Yet after some alleged freelancing on defence, with a big payday on the horizon, the Patriots sent him to Cleveland for a future draft pick. Last year, the Patriots traded Chandler Jones, who had 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in 2015, to the Cardinals for a future draft pick because Jones ran into some off-field trouble and was also approaching a big payday. Over the offseason, they let other reliable defenders walk in free agency.
The Patriots believe that they can coach up nearly any player, fitting them into a scheme that often changes by week. And it’s a justifiable belief since the Patriots have made the playoffs 12 of the last 13 seasons.
However, there’s also something to be said for natural talent. Collins and Chandler, for instance, were second- and first-round draft picks for a reason — their talent was widely coveted. While the Patriots have had unparalleled success at finding talent late in the draft and even outside of it, coaching can only go so far at times.
With five weeks in the season, nobody is counting out the Patriots — they may very well cobble together a good defence in the remaining weeks and roll into the postseason. However, for once, it seems that their team-building philosophy could be backfiring.
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