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BOSTON (CBS) — At this point, it’s not an accident.
A championship-caliber team like the Patriots just does not allow hundreds upon hundreds of yards every week for two seasons without it being part of the plan. A Hall of Fame coach with the best active resume in his sport does not sit back idly and let his defense get torched seemingly every week by mediocre-to-bad offenses. Chad Henne throwing for 416 yards, Vince Young throwing for 400, Dan Orlovsky throwing for 353, Ryan Fitzpatrick averaging 340 over two seasons, Joe Flacco going for 306 and 382, rookie Russell Wilson throwing for 293 … and the list goes on.
The old saying is that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So you either have to believe Bill Belichick is insane, or that he has a plan.
That plan, simply, is to let opposing passers rack up yardage. Rather than expend an endless amount of energy fighting the uphill battle of stopping passing offenses in a league designed for passing, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia appear to instill just one absolute in their defense: Force turnovers.
By just about any statistic, the Patriots have a horrible defense. They’re 25th in yards allowed per game, 29th in pass yards allowed, 15th in points allowed per game, 25th in first downs allowed, 31st in third-down defense, and unofficially, they inspire the least confidence in the league. If you’re going up against the Patriots, you’re going to get your yards, and you have a good chance of competing.
But if you don’t hold on to the football, you’re probably going to lose.
The Patriots’ plus-16 turnover differential is the best such mark in the NFL. The much-celebrated Bears are second with a plus-14 differential, and the closest AFC team is Houston at plus-10. While the team’s seven giveaways (fewest in NFL) help make that turnover differential so great, the Patriots’ 23 takeaways (10 interceptions, 13 fumbles) are third-most in the NFL. Most recently, the Patriots’ forcing of three turnovers against the Bills very clearly made the difference between winning and losing. Forcing fumbles on the opposing 13-yard line and their own 1-yard line and intercepting a pass in their own end zone accounted, really, for a 21-point swing in the Patriots’ favor. There aren’t too many teams in the NFL that can survive a 21-point swing against them.
It’s not rocket science, and yet, ripping the defense has become common practice in the area. Patricia and cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer, in particular, have come under fire as the Patriots’ defense gives up first down after first down, largely because humans like to find scapegoats. But for all the defense’s faults, there’s no denying that these players have been coached to force turnovers.
Take those aforementioned career passing days for those quarterbacks who won’t wind up in Canton some day. You can afford to give up 350 passing yards when you have a quarterback and an offense that can get 400, and you can afford to let Dan Orlovsky do his Peyton Manning impression when your defense can force two turnovers.
With the way NFL football has changed to more resemble a flag football game than what we saw in the league as recently as eight years ago, Belichick decided to go with the trend rather than fight it. Belichick’s course to a championship appears to be an explosive offense that rarely is matched by an opponent, combined with a defense that gets the ball back to that offense.
While he hasn’t necessarily succeeded in that endeavor, two conference championships and a 70-19 record since 2007 indicate it’s not the worst plan.
Aside from bashing Patricia and Boyer, the other common refrain heard ’round New England is that the Patriots would be much better off if they adopted a New York Giants-style defense, one full of ferocious pass rushers who can cover for a less-than-stellar secondary. You hear this, of course, because it was the Giants who beat the Patriots in those Super Bowls, but considering those two games were won by a combined seven points, is it really fair to say one is better than the other?
When it comes to this season, it’s undoubtedly difficult for fans to watch this Patriots defense play each week, but the Patriots’ three losses shouldn’t all be blamed on the defense. In the loss to the Cardinals, the offense mustered just one touchdown, Stephen Gostkowski missed two field goals and the Patriots failed on a two-point conversion attempt. They lost by two. In that game, the Cardinals scored 10 points on two drives that totaled a combined nine yards. You can’t blame the defense there.
The defense was definitely to blame for the Baltimore loss, but the Seattle loss was a different story. Yes, in the fourth quarter, there were defensive breakdowns, but the defense had allowed just 10 points through the first three quarters. In the third quarter, the Patriots allowed 15 total yards, and the defense then forced a Seattle fumble to start the fourth quarter. Despite the defense stepping up, the offense was unable to build on the lead, thereby leaving the door open for the eventual Seattle comeback.
And while the Jets game and Bills game were unpleasant for most fans to watch, it was the defense that forced game-winning turnovers to seal victories in both. Forcing three fumbles by the Broncos was likewise the difference in that 10-point Patriots victory.
It’s not a mistake, it’s not a coincidence and it’s not just dumb luck. Belichick stressed last week that the key against Buffalo would be turnovers, and the team went out and forced three of them. Rob Ninkovich and Brandon Spikes have each forced four fumbles, tied for fourth in the NFL. Jerod Mayo and Chandler Jones have forced three apiece. No other team has more than one player with three or more forced fumbles, yet the Patriots have four. That does not happen by accident.
So curse at your television all you want after the Patriots let Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Matt Schaub, Alex Smith and Co. throw for 300-plus yards against them the rest of the way. Call the radio and mock the defensive coaches every afternoon if it helps relieve some of the stress accumulated from watching the games. But know the defense, for all its faults, is following a plan. While it may not be a perfect one, it led the Patriots to a Super Bowl last season, and it has them with the third-best record in the AFC at the moment.
Expecting different results from a sudden change of course? Now that would truly be insane.