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New England Patriots' Defensive Success Is More Than Just Opportunistic Play

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New England Patriots' Defensive Success Is More Than Just Opportunistic Play
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The New England Patriots are leading the AFC in turnover differential (plus-24) for the third year in a row, and are tops in the NFL for the second year in the last three.

On the surface it might appear that the Patriots are once again playing that style of defense where they give up a lot of yards, but make up for it by getting timely turnovers.

You'd basically be right. However, this year is a little different.

In 2010 the Patriots were an NFL-leading plus-24 in turnover differential with 25 interceptions and 13 recovered fumbles, and in 2011 they led the AFC with a plus-17 on 23 interceptions and 11 recovered fumbles.

In both of those past seasons it was interceptions that drove the Patriots defense, but this year it's all about the recovered fumbles. Through just 11 games the Patriots have forced a staggering 26 forced fumbles, while recovering 18 of them. This comes against just 14 interceptions.

The script has flipped for the Patriots defense. They're still getting turnovers, but now they're forcing them.

To put this in context, the 2012 Patriots already have recovered more fumbles through 11 games than all but two teams' full season totals in the last five seasons: 2010 Jets (18) and 2010 Giants (23).

Or just take it from Tom Brady on WEEI this week:

How many fumbles have we’ve forced this year? It’s been a ridiculous amount but I wouldn’t say that’s a fluke, I’d say that’s a strength of what our guys are capable of doing. That’s a trait of our defense and it shows itself every single week ...

And it's not just one player. The Pats feature four different defenders in the NFL's Top Ten Fumble Forcers (Spikes 5, Ninkovich 5, Jones 3, Mayo 3).

Now we've touched on how the reliance on turnovers is a slippery slope to live or die on, and we'll have even more of it later this week. But I agree with Tom that forced fumbles are not a fluke; they are the sign of an aggressive and physical defense that has taken a step forward in their progression this year. 

Leading the way is Brandon Spikes, who has developed into one of the most fearsome interior linebacker presences in all of football. Spikes is an old-school football player who can single-handedly shut down an opposing run game.

But aside from his monstrous hits, Spikes has a nose for the ball, though often times the fumbles he's forced this year have been a result not of getting a hand on the ball, but completely knocking the ball carrier senseless.

He might be exploitable in coverage, but it doesn't matter. Spikes is a player opposing run games must plan for.

Then there's Rob Ninkovich, who seems to just have a knack for making his biggest plays at the biggest moments. He might not be consistent with his rush, but he comes through when you need someone to, and players who can do that consistently are nearly impossible to find.

The number of fumbles the Patriots are forcing this year is special, but what is most encouraging is that it's a far less fickle stat than interceptions, which can often be a by-product of teams being behind on the Patriots and having to throw a lot.

A high volume of forced fumbles reflect an attitude, and perhaps that is the most exciting thing about the Patriots defense right now. They still might give up large chunks of passing yards and even the occasional long run, but it will take a highly disciplined football team that can win a down-to-the-wire dogfight to beat them.

They've lost three games by four points. Total.

This is why the days of the Patriots defense being a punchline are going away as quickly as they'll force a team to fumble.

 

Mike Dussault is a New England Patriots Featured Columnist and also edits PatsPropaganda.com. He co-hosts the PatsPropaganda & Frenz podcast with AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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