New England Patriots' Pass Defense Improving Past Expectations

James DiMaioCorrespondent INovember 26, 2011

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 13:  Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets gets sacked by  Andre Carter #93 of the New England Patriots at MetLife Stadium on November 13, 2011 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

At the start of the 2011 NFL season, the Patriots' defense was giving up an atrocious amount of yards through the air, anchoring them at the bottom of the league in passing yards allowed. The Patriots looked awful while allowing second-rate quarterbacks such as Chad Henne and Jason Campbell to throw for 416 yards and 344 yards, respectively.

The Patriots became heavily reliant on Tom Brady and their explosive offense to mask the blemishes of their defense. Despite the championship-level play of the offense, Patriots fans were haunted by the memories of recent playoff losses to the Jets and Ravens, when the seemingly unstoppable offense of the regular season struggled early and the defense failed to make crucial stops. 

Once again, the underlying problem showed its ugly face: If Tom Brady isn’t perfect, the Patriots can’t win. After a horrific start to the season, fans were left with one question: Can the pass defense improve?

When analyzing a team’s pass defense, three main statistics should be considered:  Passing yards allowed, sacks and opponents' third-down conversion rate. When comparing the first five games of the season to the last five games, the Patriots' pass defense appears to be a much-improved unit.

Game Net Passing Yds Allowed Sacks Opp 3rd Down %
1. @ MIA 390 4 14%
2. VS SD 372 2 83%
3. @ BUF 369 0 36%
4. @ OAK 344 0 61%
5. VS NYJ 158 2 27%
Average/game 327 1.6 44%
Game Net Passing Yds Allowed Sacks Opp 3rd Down %
6. VS DAL 300 2 33%
7. @ PIT 329 5 62%
8. VS NYG 250 0 28%
9. @ NYJ 268 5 38%
10. VS KC 209 3 42%
Average/game 271 3 41%

What is even more impressive than these improving numbers is the caliber of quarterback New England has played as of late. Over the last five games, the Patriots' pass defense has held their own against three of the top ten quarterbacks in the league in terms of passer rating: Tony Romo (102.5 passer rating, fourth), Eli Manning (94.7 passer rating, sixth) and Ben Roethlisberger (93.2 passer rating, seventh).

Perhaps we can blame the early woes of the pass defense on the lockout or even the scheme change from 3-4 to 4-3, but no matter how you slice it, they're clearly making strides.

If the pass defense can continue to progress, New England’s defense as a whole could become an overall solid unit. The Patriots have been solid all year defending the run, hovering within the top 10 rushing defenses all season. It wasn’t up until this week that they slipped out of the top 10 (now ranked 12th). 

Moreover, the Patriots' pass rush has found new life with the emergence of Andre Carter (nine sacks) and Mark Anderson (seven sacks) as they rank 16th in the league in sacks (23 total sacks).

Lastly, let’s remember one thing: the only statistic that truly matters when analyzing a defense is points allowed, because at the end of the day the team with more points wins the game. 

Something that has been overlooked about this Patriots defense all season is their ability to stop teams from getting touchdowns. Despite their early struggles, the Patriots rank 10th in the league in points allowed, which is something this group can hang their hat on. With an improving pass defense, a solid run defense and the ability to hold teams to field goals rather than touchdowns, this unit could cause some serious issues for opposing offenses come playoff time.