Which teams are positioned to succeed vs. Patriots' defense?

Pro Football Focus

By Ben Linsey

Through the first eight weeks of the season, New England’s defense put up absurd numbers. There isn’t a shortage of statistics to choose from to show how dominant the first half of the season was for the Patriots. Here are a few of the better ones:

  • They had as many defensive touchdowns as they did offensive TDs allowed (four).

  • The Patriots allowed a 56.7 passer rating to quarterbacks from a clean pocket. That was the lowest in the NFL and over 10 points lower than the league average passer rating under pressure (67.9).

  • When the Patriots got pressure on the QB, they allowed just 31 completions – the same number of sacks they recorded – and a league-best passer rating of 12.5. That was magnified by the fact that they got pressure on 40 percent of quarterback dropbacks (second-highest rate in the NFL).

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 15: Kyle Van Noy #53 of the New England Patriots carries Stephon Gilmore #24 after he returned an interception for a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on September 15, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
New England's Kyle Van Noy carries Stephon Gilmore after he returned an interception for a touchdown against Miami. (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

New England’s defense looked unbeatable. As impressive as that start was, it’s important to look at the quarterbacks they faced. A not-so-intimidating gauntlet of Ben Roethlisberger (who may have been dealing with elbow soreness prior to his season-ending surgery), Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh Rosen, Luke Falk, Josh Allen, Matt Barkley, Colt McCoy, Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield. (The last two of those QBs are suffering disastrous sophomore campaigns.) That group combined for a passer rating of 79.6 in games outside of the New England game, which would rank 29th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks.

The Patriots’ level of competition and fortunes changed in Week 10. Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens ripped through the Patriots on a national stage last Sunday night, as the Ravens hung 37 points on New England and handed the Patriots their first loss of the season in convincing fashion.

Here’s why the Ravens gave Patriots so much trouble?

The Ravens have by far the best rushing offense in the NFL when looking at expected points added per play. That starts and ends with Jackson’s dynamic and unique skills. Whether it be as a designed runner in offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s scheme or as a scrambler improvising outside of the pocket, no defender wants to see Jackson lining him up in the open field.

He is averaging nearly as many yards before contact per carry as the NFL average for total yards per rush (3.8 yards and 4.2 yards respectively). He has broken 20 tackles as a runner when no other quarterback has more than eight. Jackson is on another level than any other quarterback when it comes to making plays with his legs, and that opens up things for Mark Ingram and company given how much respect the defense has to pay Jackson on read options.

All of that showed against New England. The Ravens shredded the top-ranked defense for 210 rushing yards on 41 attempts.

The Patriots have built their defense from back to front, prioritizing secondary and coverage players while placing less emphasis on run stuffers. It’s the correct move in today’s NFL where passing is king, but it also makes them susceptible to an offense like Baltimore’s that can neutralize the Patriots’ biggest advantage – cornerbacks like Stephon Gilmore who take away a team’s top wide receiver one-on-one. Just four of Jackson’s 17 completions went to a player who was covered by a cornerback. The Ravens didn’t have to attack the Patriots’ biggest strength to move the ball, so they avoided it all together.

As Duke said of Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV,”: “You see. You see. He’s not a machine, he’s a man!”

The Ravens showed the world that the Patriots’ defense was mortal. So what other teams remaining on their schedule are in the best position to take advantage?

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) hands off the ball to running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Dallas' combination of quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott have what it takes to defeat the Patriots this season. (AP/Bill Kostroun)

Dallas Cowboys (Week 12)

It has gone under the radar, but the Cowboys have crafted one of the best offenses in the NFL this season behind Dak Prescott’s career “contract” year. They currently rank first among all teams in success rate, or the percentage of their plays that generate positive EPA. Outside of the fact that their offense is better than it has been in some time, it also matches up well vs. New England.

The Patriots have used 61.5 percent man coverage this season, the top rate in the league and one of only three teams to use it over 50 percent of the time. Through nine weeks, Prescott is PFF’s fourth-highest graded quarterback against man, and he is particularly effective when looking Amari Cooper’s direction. Cooper is averaging over 18 yards per reception against man and has generated a passer rating of 134.3 on 26 targets. His route running makes him a tall task for any cornerback to cover one-on-one, and though Gilmore is perhaps the toughest matchup Cooper could draw in man coverage, Cooper is better suited than most to win that battle.

Additionally, the Cowboys also have one of the league’s top offensive lines when at full strength. Not only does that benefit Ezekiel Elliott and a running game that is beginning to build some steam, but it is giving Dak clean pockets at the highest rate of his career (66 percent). It’s also keeping him off the turf when teams blitz. Prescott has not taken a sack yet vs. the blitz this season in 74 dropbacks, while his 8.1 yards per dropback when blitzed ranks fourth in the league. Considering the Patriots blitz at a top-10 rate, being able to counter that is huge. Much like the Ravens did, the Cowboys’ offensive line should create room in the run game and give Dak time to sit back in the pocket and find his receivers.

Houston Texans (Week 13)

Deshaun Watson has been excellent this season, notching a top-5 PFF grade among quarterbacks and earning a spot in the MVP conversation. There is no quarterback-to-wide receiver combination that is operating at a higher level than Watson-to-DeAndre Hopkins. Those two alone have a good chance of keeping the Texans in most games, regardless of matchup.

Part of what makes that duo “matchup-proof” is that Hopkins is one of the top receivers in the league at the catch point, bringing in 35 contested catches since the start of last season. That is five more than any other player over that span. That ability is crucial against a New England defense that is around the catch point so often. Even if the Patriots are in position to make a play, there is a better than 50 percent chance that Hopkins will be coming down with that ball.

Similarly, Watson is one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL at creating outside of structure. On a league-high 95 dropbacks where Watson gets outside the pocket, he has completed 39 of 62 passes for 475 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions to go with 22 scrambles for 122 rushing yards. If you were putting together a “I had this quarterback dead in the rights for a sack, but he escaped and completed a 40-yard touchdown pass” ranking, Watson would be high on that list.

Like the Ravens, the Texans have also had one of the league’s best rushing attacks, and no, it isn’t because Carlos Hyde is in the backfield. It is because Watson is the closest thing to Jackson that there is in terms of being a threat to take off and pick up 20 yards with ease. The Texans have used 50 read options this season (fourth-most in the NFL) and they’ve torn apart defenses when using it (7.1 yards per attempt – highest in the NFL). Their 353 rushing yards off read options fall behind only the Ravens among all teams.

Kansas City Chiefs (Week 14)

Patrick Mahomes should be back and healthy for this Week 14 contest in New England, which means that a rematch of last season’s AFC championship game is in order. In that game, the Chiefs didn’t score in the first half before exploding for 31 points in the second and ultimately losing in overtime. They have receiving talent all over the offense with players like Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins, and according to PFF, they have the top play-caller in the league (Andy Reid) running the show.

Their receiving group can take advantage at multiple levels of the field. Hill is the premier deep threat in the NFL (his 1,617 receiving yards on passes 20 or more yards downfield are nearly 500 more than any other WR since 2017), Kelce is a yards after the catch machine (his 2,909 yards after the catch are second in the league to only Golden Tate) and Watkins is one of the league’s best underneath (his 125.9 passer rating when targeted within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage is highest among all players with 100 or more targets in that area since 2017).

Even a talented Patriots secondary will have trouble defending a group like that for four quarters, especially given that they have Mahomes distributing the ball. Dating back to last season, Mahomes is PFF’s second-highest graded quarterback behind Drew Brees, and he is tied for the league lead in big-time throws over that span with Russell Wilson.

Good offenses can take advantage of even the best defenses

What do those three offenses have in common? They, along with the Ravens, form the top-4 offenses in expected points added per play in the NFL this season.

Yes, taking advantage of matchups is important, and the Ravens, Cowboys, Texans and Chiefs all have matchups they can exploit against the Patriots. Most important, though, is having an effective offense in the first place.

In basketball, you’ll often hear the phrase, “Great defense but better offense.” The same can be applied to football in the sense that good offense beats good defense more often than not.

The Patriots weren’t tested over the first eight weeks of the season, and in their first exam against an above-average offensive team, they wilted. There’s no reason to doubt that the Patriots still have one of the best defenses in the NFL. They’re loaded with talent in the area where it matters most – the secondary – and they have one of the top schemes in the league headed by Bill Belichick. That being said, they’ll always be susceptible to the league’s best offenses. With several of the offenses on the horizon, we’ll find out just how good the Patriots defense is in the coming weeks.

For more NFL analysis, go to PFF.com.

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