Patriots Defense Hanging on by a Statistical Thread

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 30, 2011



By Erik Frenz (Twitter: @ErikFrenz)
Cold, Hard Football Facts Patriots beat writer


What the Patriots have achieved this season on defense has defied statistical logic. This is a unit that ranks dead last against the pass, and is on pace to set a new record for passing yards against them in a single season. Yet somehow, it is a unit that has helped the Patriots win 12 games.


They can thank their red zone defense, which ranks 18th in the NFL by allowing 53.5 percent conversions. They can also thank an opportunistic defense that ranks fourth in the NFL with 30 takeaways.

The yards in conjunction with the turnovers and red zone stops is all an indication of the Patriots "bend-don't-break" style of defense. The Patriots really play the percentages. It's risky business to assume that an opposing offense is incapable of driving the ball consistently down the field for touchdowns, but when you have an offense to fall back on that scores 30.9 points per game, that's a chance you can take with confidence.

Their games often come down to the ability of the defense to make a key play when they need it most.
  • Patrick Chung grabbed an end zone interception on the final possession of the first half for the Raiders.
  • Jerod Mayo grabbed a red zone interception on the final offensive possession for the Redskins.
  • Vince Wilfork recovered a fumble that bounced right into his lap when the Patriots were down 17-3.
And those, of course, are just the most memorable moments of turnovers. There are also examples of late-game three-and-outs and other big plays the defense has made when they've needed it most.

It's been piecemeal, and it's been inconsistent for the most part. As such, the big question is whether or not it will translate into postseason success. After all, it's the same formula that led them to a 14-2 record and a first-round loss in 2010. It's clear that the game plan is set for how to beat the Patriots:
  1. Control the ball—don't turn it over.
  2. Control the clock—keep Tom Brady off the field.
  3. Score touchdowns, not field goals, in the red zone.
The question now is, how many teams are capable of executing this fairly simple statistical blueprint?

Playoff teams Turnovers (rank) Red zone scoring % (rank)
Pittsburgh Steelers 26 (20) 53.06 (12)
Baltimore Ravens 24 (18) 50.00 (19)
Cincinnati Bengals 21 (10) 46.94 (24)
Houston Texans 19 (6) 46.43 (25)
Denver Broncos 28 (26) 50.00 (21)
Oakland Raiders 29 (27) 52.27 (14)

How does the Patriots' offense measure up against the pack in those categories?

Turnovers: 16 (3)
Red zone scoring %: 64.16 (3)

These numbers are just further evidence to what we already know: The Patriots beat opponents with their offense, and hope not to lose to their opponents on defense.

It's worth mentioning, too, that the Jets didn't appear to be that team in 2010, but were able to pitch a perfect game as they didn't turn the ball over once and scored touchdowns on four of their five trips to the red zone.

As mentioned previously, the turnovers have been what's won them games this year, but their red zone defense is a little below the middle of the pack. The Patriots need only make a couple of key stops to win games in the postseason, and they've proven capable of doing just that on several occasions. 

The final question we face is, can the Patriots execute their game plan in the playoffs? That one, however, will have to wait for an answer.

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