Do we really know how good the Patriots defense is?
Heading into week-17 the Patriots have the 8th ranked defense in the NFL when it comes to yards against. Yards against is the statistical metric that the league uses to rank defenses from first to worst.
They are 9th in rushing yards against and 14th in passing yards against.
They are also ranked 5th in points against.
Those rankings suggest offenses are going-up against a pretty stout and stingy defense.
But, are those rankings an accurate indication of how good the defense really is?
The biggest concern for a defense in any given match-up is the ability of the opposing quarterback. The NFL has changed the rules and made it much easier to complete passes than it was 15-years ago.
Defensive players are now very limited in how aggressive they can play. There are far greater roughing the passer and pass interference penalties then there used to be.
Defensive backs are required to cover receivers without as much as bumping them beyond 5-yards from the line of scrimmage, and the even the contact after the receiver catches the ball is being limited by the new rules. Defensive players must now be very concerned about how much force they use when they hit a Quarterback or Receiver in order to avoid 15-yard penalties and handing offenses 1st-downs for being too aggressive.
These factors are making it much easier for offenses to move the ball thru the air. Thus making the Quarterback a bigger part of offensive success.
If you have a good Quarterback your chances of moving the football are greatly increased. If an offense has success throwing the football it will create an ability to also run the ball successfully, since defenses nowadays are often playing with five or six defensive backs as their base defense in order to defense the passing attack more effectively. These smaller DB's that are on the field make it more inviting for a team to run at.
If a team struggles to move the football thru the air, defenses can then adjust in order to make it harder for them to them to also run the ball.
Defenses can bring in a Linebacker in exchange for a defensive back. Safety's can move down closer to the line of scrimmage to support the run without much concern about getting beat for long passes if the Quarterback has shown an inability to consistently hurt them thru the air.
It has been said that a good running attack will open-up the passing attack, and that a good passing attack will open-up the running attack for better success.
But, with the recent rule changes the latter is now much more of a legitimate statement.
The bottom line is that defenses will have a much more difficult time stopping a team with a good passing attack than they will facing a team with a good running attack, due to these rule changes.
That's what makes the Patriots defensive rankings a bit hard to quantify.
So far this season the Patriots have beaten three starting Quarterbacks.
They beat Mitch Trubisky and the Steelers in week-2, Goff and the Lions in week-5, and Zach Wilson and the Jets in weeks-8 and 11.
A couple of those wins were against QB's who have played bad enough to have now lost their starting QB status,
Mitch Trubisky lost his starting job halfway thru the Steelers week-4 loss to the Jets, and Zach Wilson last his job after the week-11 loss to the Patriots.
Here is a list of the Quarterbacks that have started against the Patriots:
Passer rating rank
Tua Tagovailoa 1
Mitch Trubiski n/a
Lamar Jackson 16
Aaron Rodgers 14
Jared Goff 7
Jacoby Brissett 19
Justin Fields 20
Sam Ehlinger n/a
Kirk Cousins 13
Josh Allen 8
Colt McCoy n/a
Derek Carr 25
Joe Burrow 6
There are some very QB's in that list, and there are some not very good QB's in that list.
So it's not like the Patriots have played a schedule with a bunch of crappy QB's on it, but when you consider this list knowing that they really only beat one QB (Goff) that could be considered a legitimate passing threat it makes you wonder how good the defense really is.
Are they a legitimate 8th-ranked defense if they've beaten only one QB with a top-10 passer rating (#7 Jared Goff) and only two QB's with a top-20 passer rating (#19 J. Brissett)?
Week-17 won't help provide us with an answer to that question since the Patriots will be facing Miami's back-up QB Teddy Bridgewater.
In week-18 they will be in Buffalo to take-on Josh Allen again, if the Bills have something to play for and play their starters in the last regular season game.
If the Patriots can win their last two games they will certainly face a QB with a rating in the top-10 again in round-1 of the playoffs, since it will most likely either be Josh Allen, Pat Mahomes or Joe Burrow they go up against.
If they don't make the playoffs we may be wondering how good their defense really was in 2022, as they start the preparations for 2023.