According to DVOA, the Patriots haven't had a top ten defense since 2006. That year, they had a defensive DVOA of -9.2%, which was 7th in the league. The 2006 team went 12-4 and lost a 21-3 lead to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship. Since then, New England has gone 110-29 in the regular season and have been to three Super Bowls.
They can thank their offense for this. During this same stretch, the Patriots haven't had an offense outside the top ten in DVOA, have ranked first four times, and their average is 26.33%, with 2.88 being their average rank.
This year is the same. The Patriots are led by one of the best offenses in the league (DVOA of 19.8%, good for 2nd in the NFL). The defense is good, but not great (-2.8%, 12th). This has worked for the last eight years and is working similar wonders again this year.
New England has one of the most unique defenses in the NFL. The numbers aren't what makes the Patriots' defense special. Every team likes to claim they game-plan to their opponent and make adjustments, but few actually do it. Most teams in the league have a base defense they try to stay in; they switch to nickel or dime fronts depending on the score, down, distance, and time remaining.
The Patriots aren't like most teams. New England is compartmentalized as a 4-3 defense. They aren't really a 4-3 defense. They run multiple fronts. The Patriots boast a fluid defense that shows different looks and truly reacts to what the opposing offense does.
For example, Chandler Jones is listed as the Patriots' right defensive end. For most teams, this means he would play against a team's left tackle as a 5 (outside shade of the tackle) or 9 (outside shade of the tight end) technique for the majority of the game. For New England, however, the positions listed on the depth chart are merely a guideline, not a rule.
Here Jones is a 3 technique at right defensive end in a 3-3-5 defense.
Jones is again a RDE in a 4-3 over front. He's a 6 technique (head up with a tight end).
Now he's in the nickel as a stand-up 5.
No one on the Patriots' defensive front seven sticks completely to the position listed. Jones will play RDE, but will play multiple techniques in a variety of different fronts. Like Jones, Rob Ninkovich will play defensive end, stand up and rush the passer from an outside linebacker position, and drop back in coverage. Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Dominique Easley, and Sealver Siliga are all defensive tackles, yet any one of them could play nose tackle as a 0, a 4i defensive end in the 3-4, or the basic 1 or 3 in New England's base 4-3. Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, and Jerod Mayo are linebackers who will play inside or outside; they even rush the passer from the defensive end position.
New England molds their defense to the situation at hand by using a variety of different fronts. The key trait to playing on the Patriots' defense is versatility. The players in the box all scatter around throughout the defense. Chandler Jones is a perfect example of an adaptable player.
Jones is a commendable run-stopper. He's very good in the run game when he's matched up one-on-one against tackles and tight ends. He does a great job punching the outside shoulder, setting the edge, gaining control of the block, and looking for the ball carrier. He's at his best in these situations when he can attack the edge and make a tackle or force the back inside.
Like most lighter defensive ends, Jones has problems against guards and double teams. When going up against doubles and bigger players, Jones doesn't have the strength to hunker down and sit. He gets knocked back consistently. Yet because of his role in the defense and how often he plays outside, he doesn't get placed in this situation very often.
In their first blemish of the season against the Broncos, New England is in a 4-3 under front. Jones is playing the Leo as the stand up weakside 5. On 1st and 10, Denver is running the outside zone towards him.
Because of the alignment, Jones gets the left tackle by himself. The 3 next to him is forced to take on an ace (double between the center and guard) that goes to the WILL linebacker.
Jones' first step is inside. When he sees Ryan Harris (LT #68) take a zone step left, he reacts by taking a step outside. He can't let the tackle get to his outside shoulder. He needs to force the run back inside to the strength of the defense.
Jones makes contact and comes into Harris.
Jones is really long and has great upper body strength that allows him to shove off and get separation.
After his punch, Jones drives forward. He has the tackle pressed off of him. He's looking into the backfield. He's in complete control of the block. If the running back decides to bounce the run outside, Jones can shed easily and make a tackle for a loss.
The tackle doesn't even have his hands on him at this point. Ronnie Hillman (#23) sees the wall to the left and cuts back inside. Jones was perfect on this play.
Malcom Brown (#90) uses the left guard's momentum against him. He swings him to his right and then cuts backs inside to make the tackle. Hillman picks up only two yards on this play.
In one-on-one situations, Jones is a good run defender. Again, against guards and double teams, he runs into problems. As noted earlier, he mostly plays against a team's left tackle. At left end and left tackle, the Patriots give up an adjusted line yards (measures the offensive line's affect on the run game) of 3.39 (16th), and 3.76 (19th). The part of the line Jones primarily plays at stops the run at about a league average rate.
The key is that Jones is at least average. The Patriots don't have to bring in a bigger body to stop the run. He can hold down the position and do what he does best, rush the passer.
Getting to the quarterback is what Jones excels at. This season, he has 10.5 sacks so far. In his career, Jones has 34 sacks, 73 hurries (not including this year), and 61 QB hits (15 this season). He's a unique pass rusher to watch too. He gallops after the tackle's outside shoulder to get to full speed before chopping his steps and uses his long arms to get separation. His main pass rush move is the rip. Additionally, Jones has great hands, plays with leverage, and can counter his speed move with the bull rush.
This is an obvious passing situation for Denver. It's 3rd and 11 with 10:01 left in the first quarter. Kubiak elects to have Brock Osweiler operate from an empty backfield with 0x0x5 personnel (0 running backs, 0 tight ends, 5 receivers; there are tight ends on the field, but they are lined up wide).
New England is spread out wide as a result. They have Jones rushing from a wide 9, or jet technique, with the safety, Devin McCourty (#32), in the box covering Vernon Davis. Jabaal Sheard (#93), a depth chart defensive end, is standing up over the center and showing A gap (gap between the center and guard) pressure. He's running a T-E stunt (tackle crashes inside while the end loops around) with Rob Ninkovich #50. Lastly, inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower (#54) is rushing off the edge as a wide 5. This is a perfect example of the Patriots moving their players everywhere.
Off the snap, Jones takes a long looping step outside. He doesn't run; he bounds to full speed. It's like watching Bugs Bunny. At this moment, Jones resembles a speed skater sprinting down a straightaway.
He sees the tackle overstep outside. Ryan Harris (#68) hurries outside so he can stop the speed rush. Consequently, he's too wide and loses his strength in this stance. Jones reacts by taking his second step back inside toward the tackle.
Harris recovers well, gets square, and gets his butt down when he makes contact. The problem is Jones has momentum inside, punches first, and gets both his head and hands inside.
The tackle's goal in pass protection is to cover up the defender, punch inside, extend, sit, and control the block. The defender is trying to get into the offensive lineman, punch to remove himself from the block, and swat his hands off. Jones' goal comes to fruition. He immediately pops back after he engages.
This pass rush move is called a long or straight arm. The defender stabs the inside chest, gets perpendicular, creates more separation, and turns his shoulders around the edge. The idea is that you can reach further with one arm than with two.
Jones gets his shoulders around the edge. Harris tries to recover. This is when Jones' hands play a part in his rush. He uses his right arm to grab Harris' right arm. He'll fling this arm off and then rip underneath with his left arm.
The right arm is swung off.
Jones rips with his left arm. His path is now free.
Both Jones and Hightower get around the edge. With no one open, Osweiler opts to make a run for it.
The wall of three linemen prevents Ninkovich from getting to Osweiler, but with him running left, he can run away from the blocks and chase down the quarterback.
Ninkovich "sacks" him for 0 yards.
The best part of New England's defense is their pass rush. They are 5th in adjusted sack rate (7.4%), and they have taken down the quarterback 36 times, which is good for second in the league. Jones has 10.5 of these sacks, but the pressure is a total team effort.
The Patriots do a great job herding the quarterback to their teammates. New England is exceptional at getting interior pressure. Branch, Brown, and Sheard all can collapse the center of the pocket and feed the quarterback to the ends. The edge rushers turn the corner well and can force the quarterback to climb the pocket into the defensive tackles. Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan cover well and force the quarterback to hold onto the ball. As a result, 11 players on this team have a sack, with Ninkovich (5.5), Collins (4.5), Sheard (4), Hightower (3.5), and Brown (3) all having more than 1.
This all goes back to their versatility. Every player will rush from multiple positions to wreak havoc. You'll see Hightower rushing from the edge, you'll see Nincovich and Jones attack from anywhere from a 4i to a stand up 9, you'll see Collins blitz from the middle, you'll see Sheard rush from NT or DE. They bring anyone from anywhere and everywhere.
In addition to pass rushing, the edge players and linebackers cover well. The quarterback can't get a clear read on where the rush is coming from until the snap. This drags on the decision-making process, which leads to more sacks and forces unwanted throws. Because their starting seven can cover, the Patriots don't need to substitute other players in, which prevents them from giving the offense an idea as to what they're doing.
In Week Six against the Colts, Chandler Jones is standing up as a wide 5 at the right defensive end position. The Patriots are in their dime package to match up with Indy's 0x0x5 personnel on 2nd and 11. Jones and Collins are each showing pressure.
At the snap, they drop back into coverage. Collins is playing a zone in the short middle part of the field. Jones drops back and looks for Dwayne Allen (#83), who's running a dig route.
Because he hasn't crossed five yards, Jones can jam him. He squares Allen up.
And pops him in the chest.
This knocks the 6'3", 265 pound Allen's head back. More importantly, it takes away one of Andrew Luck's shorter routes in a situation where they're looking to set up a more manageable third down.
Jones then sits back in coverage and watches Luck's eyes.
Jones doesn't drop back very often compared to Collins, Hightower, and Ninkovich. Excluding 2015, Jones has only been targeted 5 times in coverage. He's primarily used as a pass rusher, but he still as skills that work in coverage. He drops back well, and he's fast and fluid. Additionally, he's long. When Jones sits back like that, it's hard to throw over him because he's 6'5" with 35 1/2" arms and a 35" vertical. In his career, Jones has 9 passes deflected. His presence adds an extra layer of difficulty to a quarterback's pass.
Jones is a good football player. He's not a superlative. He's paid to rush the passer, but he can hold his own in the run game, and in coverage. What's important is that he's versatile. Like Ninkovich, Collins, Mayo, Hightower, and the horde of defensive tackles on the roster, Jones can play multiple positions, do different things, and allow the Patriots to play a fluid game that allows them to plan for the opponent instead of sticking in the same base defense over and over again. Their ability to scheme to an opponent is what has made the Patriots different than the rest of the league and it's the second reason why they've won 110 games in the last 9 years.
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