BOSTON (CBS) — Everyone knows that the Patriots’ defense last year was among the worst in the league in most categories, yet that didn’t stop the team from making it to within one play of winning a Super Bowl.
So heading into this year, expectations weren’t exactly through the roof for the defense, though many hoped there would at least be some improvement.
And through eight games, they’ve no doubt taken strides toward fixing some of their issues, though some problems still remain. So how do they grade? Let’s find out.
Pass Defense: C
First, the positives. For one, the Patriots remain excellent at forcing turnovers, tied for first in the NFL for the best turnover ratio (+13). That includes nine interceptions for the defense, and they’re in comparable position to last year, when they used their +17 turnover ratio to cover up some holes in their defense.
Another positive has been Devin McCourty. While he still lacks that knack for making picks that he showed in his rookie year, he’s much improved from last year, when he often looked lost. He’s also slid into the safety position due to injuries in the back and has filled in well enough to the point where his name is rarely mentioned. For a safety, that can be a good thing. Rookie Tavon Wilson, who was considered a stretch by most experts in the second round of the draft, has three interceptions, which leads the team and is tied for fifth-most in the NFL. He’s looked like a rookie often, notably on the game-winning touchdown by Seattle and the 50-yard touchdown by the Rams, but the interceptions can’t be overlooked.
OK, now here’s where it kind of gets a little bit ugly: Statistics. The Patriots allow 369.8 yards per game, which ranks 23rd in the league after eight weeks. Of those yards, 281.1 come through the air, ranking the Patriots 28th in the NFL.
The pass rush has been decent, considering they’ve replaced veteran Andre Carter with rookie Chandler Jones, but their 17 sacks ranks 15th in the league, which is slightly below the middle of the pack when you consider most teams have already had their bye weeks.
Their passer rating against is 96.9, which ranks 27th in the league, and they allow eight yards per passing attempt, which ranks 28th.
Of course, the common response to anyone who wants to stand by the Patriots’ defense amid all the statistics is to look at the team’s record and points allowed. Well, 5-3 isn’t all that good, and allowing 21.3 points per game is squarely in the middle of the pack. They’ve also allowed 17 passing touchdowns, which is the second-highest total in the NFL.
So while the pass defense may not be on the same historically terrible pace it was last year, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Without any great quarterbacks on the remaining schedule, and with the assumed improvement of a young and banged-up defense, it’s safe to guess they will improve at least slightly.
Rush Defense: A-
Throughout all of the Patriots’ defensive decline over the past few years, the one constant for Bill Belichick has been a stout run defense. No matter which star running back may be lining up in the backfield, the Patriots just don’t allow them to have great games, and in some cases, they end up having the worst day of their entire season.
It started this year when the Patriots limited Chris Johnson to a ridiculous four yards on 11 carries. Since then, only Ray Rice has reached the 100-yard mark.
On the whole, the Patriots allow just 3.5 yards per rushing attempt, which is the best such mark in the NFL after eight weeks. They allow 88.6 yards per game, which ranks eighth in the NFL and is just 10.7 yards more than the NFL-leading Bears. The Patriots have allowed just three rushing touchdowns in eight games, also among the league leaders in that category.
This is no limited sample for the Patriots’ run defense, either. They’ve defended 203 rushing plays on the season, tied for 10th-most in the league through eight weeks.
And while the run defense was far from the Patriots’ biggest problem last season, they are nevertheless greatly improved from 2011, when they allowed 4.6 yards per attempt (24th) and 117.1 yards per game (17th).
Overall Defense Grade: B-
It’s not great, but it’s more than good enough for a team with as potent an offense as this one.
Check back at CBSBostonSports.com on Sunday for the Special Teams Report Card.