Are the New England Patriots the best defense of all time? We're constantly floating down a lazy river of hyperbole in 2019, but it's a fair question in the wake of Bill Belichick's smothering secondary creating apparitions before Sam Darnold's eyes on Monday night. I'm intrigued by the idea of this defense being the greatest ever. You can . So let's look at how they compare to other great historical defenses.
It doesn't fit the typical narrative -- most legendary defensive squads pop up out of nowhere. They're not born out of a contrarian and analytical approach to roster building on the tail end (?) of the greatest dynasty in the history of sports.
The Pats and Belichick have been great for 20 years. New England's produced very good defenses before. Rarely are the Patriots the best defense in football, but Belichick's units on that side of the ball typically coalesce towards the end of the year to help Tom Brady make a Super Bowl run.
Now we're seeing the Patriots jump out to an incredible start, so it begs the question: how do the 2019 Patriots compare to other historically great defenses? New England is 7-0 and has absolutely waxed everyone in their path, registering a plus-175 point differential over the first seven weeks. That's an average margin of victory of 25 points.
But the margin the Pats are winning by doesn't even really give the defense its full credit. The Patriots defense -- not the Patriots, but just the Patriots defense -- has a positive point differential. New England's defense has given up 18 points on three total touchdowns and has scored 20 points on three touchdowns and a safety. You can go ahead and kick in 12 more points on blocked punt TDs if you'd like. It's an inconceivable concept nearly halfway into the season.
People like to complain about the schedule the Patriots have faced, and it might be a fair complaint. But it's stunning to look at the production from the quarterbacks the Pats have faced so far.
Quarterbacks vs. Patriots
The competition here is not the '27 Yankees of NFL quarterbacks -- Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Fitzpatrick/Josh Rosen, Luke Falk, Josh Allen/Matt Barkley, Colt McCoy, Daniel Jones and Sam Darnold -- but over a period of seven games the Patriots have basically turned a large group of quarterbacks into something resembling a less efficient Joey Harrington.
Perhaps you prefer rookie year JaMarcus Russell instead? Rookie year Blaine Gabbert do anything for you? These are the statistical comps for the horrific Frankenstein that is the Pats opponents through seven games.
Comparing Pats D to disastrous QB seasons
|Player||Comp %||Yds/Game||Yds/Att||TD %||INT %|
|2019 Pats Opponents||50.8||172.7||5.0||0.4%||7.4%|
|2011 Blaine Gabbert||50.9||147.6||5.4||2.9%||2.7%|
|2009 JaMarcus Russell||48.8||107.3||4.5||1.2%||4.5%|
|2002 Joey Harrington||50.1||163.9||5.4||2.8%||3.7%|
Consider how terrible these quarterbacks were in their rookie seasons and just consider that's what the Patriots have turned a group of quarterbacks -- one Hall of Famer, another famous journeyman veteran, a few first-round picks and couple backups -- into so far this season.
Clearly, this is a great defense, even against a lesser level of competition. So how do the Patriots look when we start to compare them against other great defenses of recent years? I took several pretty common metrics -- points allowed per game, yards allowed per game, yards allowed per play, turnovers and defensive DVOA rating via Football Outsiders -- and applied them to several historical defenses.
For this particular exercise, the 2019 Patriots are being compared to the 2013 Seahawks (Legion of Boom), 2008 Steelers (an underrated great defense, shoutout to Bryant McFadden), 2002 Buccaneers (Jon Gruden's title team), 2000 Ravens (Brian Billick's title team) and 1985 Bears (the gold standard). This is not an end-all/be-all list of great defenses. But it's a fairly common collection of teams considered to be some of the best defenses of all time.
The goal is more to see where the Patriots -- who, reminder, have only played seven games -- stack up against these teams in terms of statistical production. It is very impressive.
Pats D vs. other historically great defenses
In terms of DVOA Rating, that comes from Football Outsiders and the bigger the number the better (so, lower, technically). DVOA records only go back to 1986.
So, the Patriots are the greatest defense of all time then, right? Maybe! They beat out everyone in terms of points per game allowed, yards per game allowed and yards per play allowed. Historically, they are one of the greatest defenses DVOA has ever measured.
But the schedule question still lingers. Plus, I was curious as to how some of these great defenses looked seven games into their respective seasons, so I went back and examined those teams through seven games. This is not an apples-to-apples comparison, because we're talking about different eras and different schedules.
The '85 Bears, for instance, played against Bud Grant, Joe Gibbs and Bill Walsh in their first seven games. The Pats drew Adam Gase twice. Slight difference. But I was curious how these teams looked through the early portion of the schedule. Oftentimes, great defenses turn it on as the season moves along.
In this instance I also wanted to know what kind of opponents these teams played through the first seven weeks of the season. To do that, I took the Patriots' opponents winning percentage for the first seven weeks of the season and also looked at the seven opponents' winning percentage for the full year of those other defenses. Just how easy was the Patriots draw?
No one played a difficult schedule. But certainly the Patriots strength of schedule stands out.
Pats D vs. other top defenses: First seven games
|Team||Pts/Game||Yds/Game||Yds/Play||Turnovers||Opp. Winning %|
This cuts both ways. Because we're using a smaller sample size, the Patriots are going to be playing worse teams. For instance, the Pats have played the Jets twice in seven weeks. They stomped the Jets both times, so the Jets could be, at best, 4-2. They're 1-5, obviously, and that counts twice towards the Patriots strength of schedule early on.
Clearly, however, there is a stark difference in terms of early competition faced by some of these great defenses.
Part of me wonders if it's not simply a historical trend. Like in baseball, where we had Dolphins, Bengals and Redskins are quite clearly have-nots, and it feels like a bigger class than general, or at least a bigger separation., the NFL's signature parity seems to have lost its luster as various teams fell to the basement. The
But, again, it cuts both ways. We've seen changes in modern football that also make it far easier to throw the ball. A startling number of teams entered this season believing they had their franchise quarterback in place. In the golden age of quarterbacking, it felt like the least robust market was somehow saturated. Yadda, yadda, yadda, Luke Falk and Ryan Fitzpatrick are starting football games.
However, it hasn't slowed down the passing stats. There are still roughly 10-15 quarterbacks on pace to throw for 4,000 passing yards this year. It's commonplace in today's NFL -- there were only 30 such seasons from 1970 to 1997 and 144 of them from 1998 through 2018 -- and the names who eclipse the mark are sort of stunning.
This is what makes Belichick's defensive blueprint so brilliant. He understood how difficult the new rules made it for defenses to actually stop opposing offenses. The game is built around offense now, and the NFL wants teams scoring. Anytime there's a 7-0 battle in the rain, it's considered a disgusting, sloppy slugfest. Let two teams score 50 on each other and everyone is convinced we're living in the middle of a football revolution.
Amid all this bluster about passing offenses, Belichick went out and pumped all of his resources into snatching up defensive backs who are capable of playing roles and also playing lockdown man coverage. Stephon Gilmore was a rare free agent splurge. After one year, people were wondering if he was a bust. Two years later he's considered potentially the best cornerback in all of football.
The Patriots' two leading tacklers are currently Jason McCourty and Jamie Collins. Both played on the winless 2017 Browns. McCourty joined his brother as a free agent last year, eschewing retirement to look for a ring with the Patriots. Both have praised the culture in New England, and having a pair of brothers is a perfect example of how Belichick's crafted this defense as well. The defensive backs pass assignments like they've known each other for 30 years, and they work in harmony as if they were related. In at least one case, they are.
As for Collins, he isn't a defensive back, but it's another example of Belichickian value. The Patriots drafted Collins, turned him into a good player, traded him to the Browns when he wanted to get paid and then, after he got paid by the Browns and eventually cut by the Browns for not performing up to the contractual standards, signed him on a much cheaper deal and managed to get better football out of him.
Finding a way to slow down passing offenses and to limit the effectiveness of spread formations was going to be difficult. But maybe it played right into Belichick's hands? Get a cohesive group of defensive backs, teach them to play an incredibly high level of man coverage on the back end, supplement it with good but cheap pass rushers, put an evil genius at the controls and let people try to throw into the spiderweb.
It's a blend of economics and analytics tossed into a bowl and coated with Hall of Fame coaching that has led to the Patriots having one of the best defenses in NFL history through seven games. My hunch is the numbers might regress a bit based on the schedule coming up. But even the great offenses New England will face feature young quarterbacks -- Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield and Carson Wentz litter the forthcoming docket. Belichick's made a career out of wrecking shop on signal callers under the age of 26, and everyone above qualifies.
Think back to that opening game against the Steelers and the sheer bewilderment of Ben Roethlisberger as he stood in the pocket and patted the ball and waited for someone to get open ... and waited and waited and waited. Eventually pass rushers are going to get home given that much time.
Just as the analytics community decides it's more valuable to acquire defensive backs than it is to acquire pass rushers, bam, Belichick has already done it. He's playing four-dimensional chess, and everyone else is looking around for a checkers partner. He zigged when everyone else zagged. Time is a flat circle and the Patriots might be storming to another Super Bowl with the best defense Belichick has ever coached in New England.