Five weeks into the 2012 NFL season, the New England Patriots identity has carved out an identity for itself. It is not the best identity for a defense to have in this era of offensive football, but the Patriots seem to be fully committed to developing it and sticking to it through thick and thin. The identity of which I speak is for the Patriots defense to be extremely effective against opponents’ rushing attacks while also being especially lax about stopping their opponents’ passing attempts. It was an identity that reared its ugly head against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, but a lot of luck helped the Patriots from allowing more than 21 points in the contest.
Heading into Sunday’s contest the Patriots defense ranked seventh in the NFL against the run (-30.8 percent DVOA) and just 20th in the NFL against the pass (18.2 percent) out of 32 NFL teams. After Sunday’s game, it is unlikely the rankings for the Patriots defense will change that drastically because they played exactly to expectations against the Denver Broncos offense.
Whenever the Broncos foolishly elected to run the ball, the Patriots defense was incredibly stout, only surrendering a total of 70 yards on 20 Broncos carries. It is a wonder the Broncos even kept up the pretense of trying to gain yards by running the ball against the Patriots since they were only gaining an average of 3.5 yards every time they attempted to run.
However, whenever Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning dropped back to pass, the Patriots were virtually powerless against the Broncos offense. Manning completed 31 of his 44 pass attempts in the game for 345 passing yards; he also threw three touchdowns to zero interceptions. His superb statistical line translated to 7.8 yards per pass attempt, 9.2 adjusted yards per pass attempt, 7.2 net yards per pass attempt, and 8.5 adjusted net yards per pass attempt as he outplayed his counterpart, Tom Brady, in Sunday’s game.
Ordinarily, giving up so many passing yards that were gained so consistently would have probably led to the Patriots allowing more than the 21 points they gave up on Sunday. However, what kept the Broncos from running up the score on the Patriots was the luck the Patriots had with fumble recoveries.
Three times the Broncos fumbled the ball, with assistance from the Patriots defense, and three times the Patriots defense was able to recover the fumble. Two of the fumble recoveries happened inside the Patriots’ 20-yard line as the Broncos were poised to score, but were unable to do so due to the lost fumbles. While causing fumbles is a repeatable skill, recovering them is not so the Patriots were very fortunate to get their hands on each of the three Broncos’ fumbles. If they had not done so, the game would have been very different for both teams.
After the Patriots’ last game, I cautioned the defense against counting on the ability to force turnovers as a way to stop opponents from scoring points, but they have gone yet another week without suffering from doing just that. As impressive as it looks for the defense to cause a lot of turnovers, though, it is only a matter of time before they face an opponent that gains a lot of yards against them via the pass while not turning the ball over. When that happens, the true face of the Patriots defense will be revealed.