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The Analytics Shows a Bizarre Weakness in the Patriots Defense That Explains Just How Bad Things Are

CJ GUNTHER. Shutterstock Images.

We've all been fixated, and rightly so, by the Vesuvius-level cataclysm that has been Bill O'Brien's abominable offense so far this season. But while we are, it's important to not lose sight of how the other side of the ball that started out the year with such promise, keeping the Patriots in games against Philadelphia and Miami that could've been won were it not for a toe not getting down in bounds in the first game and a 4th down not getting converted in the second. Both of which were close enough that they were called in New England's favor, then overturned on review. 

But those games feel like the lifetime of an Ent ago. Due mostly to a Biblical plague of injuries, losing their two best players in Christian Gonzalez and Matthew Judon, their best interior pass rusher in Daniel Ekuale, and all three cornerbacks named Jones at one time or another. But also by the strain of trying to hold up an entire team while turnovers, Pick-6s, and 3 & outs become more common than 1st downs. 

As we've gone on through the first third of the season, the  Belichick and Son's defense has progressively gotten worse. And only an impressive red zone performance against Jimmy Garoppolo and [deep breath] Brian Hoyer kept them from getting blown out of a $2 billion stadium Sunday.

And yet there's one measurement of this unit I hadn't picked up on until the analytics people pointed it out. And it's both bizarre and telling:

One of the oldest cliches of the Belichick Era - in fact, it predates his time in New England considerably and goes all the way back to his days as coordinator with the Giants - is that he takes what you do best away from you and makes you beat him some other way. Or to use the alternative version, he makes you play left-handed. So that, in order to win against his team, you're going to have to do it with your second, third and fourth options. Which didn't used to work. 

Until now. 

A couple of things about this. First that analytics is what you make of it. There's a lot of eye of the beholder in all of these. And in this one, I don't get how this unit rates so low against tight ends, whom they've handcuffed for the most part. In four of their six games, they gave up 0, 23, 35 and 6 receiving yards to opposing TEs. Jake Ferguson dropped 77 on them. And they had that weird inability to stop Michael Mayer as he and Austin Hooper combined for 7 receptions on 8 targets for 94 yards. But how that body of work makes you the fourth worst at defending TEs is between these mathletes and their numbers. 

The rest of it though, I have no quarrel with. At the beginning of the year, they had the luxury of letting Gonzalez off the leash to track the AJ Browns and Tyreek Hills and Garrett Wilsons and keep them at bay. Last week, JC Jackson made a triumphant return against Davante Adams. But behind them, there's been no one to contain anyone else. Those secondary and tertiary options quarterbacks didn't used to want to rely on are now super reliable. Because they're being defended by Myles Bryant and Shaun Wade and Jalen Mills, who by and large are keeping their distance like they're in a supermarket in March of 2020. 

Again to be fair, losing your top four cornerbacks will do that to a team. But even when they had Gonzalez and a Jones or two, these non-primary targets were killing us. The ability to scheme effectively behind your CB1 and cover for your weak spots would appear to be gone. And if you don't have the matchup advantage and no way to coach it in order to neutralize the threat, you're helpless. There's no third way to get it done. 

If there's any hope at all of rectifying this, it'll have to come from getting healthy bodies back. Otherwise we ride out the next 10 1/2 months and envision a fall of 2024 when we've got Gonzalez on one side, Jackson on the other, and Jonathan and Jack Jones splitting the slot duties between them. Until then, a lot of receivers are going to be coming off a lot of Fantasy benches every week to put up video game numbers against this secondary. Like it's not already been bad enough, things could actually get worse.