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Defensive upgrades will power Patriots to Super Bowl

Posted Sep 6, 2012

Kerry Byrne of Cold, Hard Football Facts points out that with just a little help on defense, the Patriots could be bringing home a fourth Lombardi Trophy.

The New England Patriots have been one of the dominant teams in football for more than a decade.

It’s been eight years since the team last won a Super Bowl, but even in that time the Patriots have posted an awesome 86-26 (.768) record, as impressive as any team in history over such a long period.

Tom Brady and the offense have led the way in recent years. In fact, the Patriots have a chance in 2012 to become the first franchise in NFL history to score 500-plus points in four different seasons (2007, 2010, 2011). For a little perspective, only 10 teams have topped 500 points even once.

We are witnessing offensive history with the Patriots in recent years. Yet the fact remains that this offensive success has not produced a Super Bowl title.

Balance Wins Super Bowls
The difference between New England’s Super Bowl champions of the last decade and the great teams that fell short in recent years is unmistakable when you study the team through the all-powerful pigskin prism of our Cold, Hard Football Facts Quality Stats.

The championship teams were simply more balanced than more recent teams: good on offense and good – sometimes very good – on defense, even if not always great on either side of the ball.

The reality is that a balanced NFL team will almost always trump a team that’s great in one area but weak in another. Those statistical weak links almost always snap at the worst moments, as they have for the Patriots in recent years, and for decades of contenders that fell short before them.

Fan should be encouraged by the fact that the Patriots aggressively targeted defenders in the 2012 draft. New England needs an injection of defensive playmakers to strengthen the glaring statistical weak links on that side of the ball.

The discrepancy between prolific offense and weak-link defense was obvious when you examine the 2011 Patriots with our Quality Stats:

Quality Stats Power Rankings (No. 8) – The Patriots, on average, ranked No. 11.5 among the 32 NFL teams in all our indicators, good enough for No. 8 overall. But the imbalance was evident:

  • The Patriots ranked on average 4th league-wide in our offensive indicators
  • The Patriots ranked on average 20th league-wide in our defensive indicators

Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (No. 2) – The Patriots produced 7.89 yards every time they dropped back to pass (REAL Passing YPA counts sacks as attempts and subtracts the lost yardage). Anything over 7.0 is pretty impressive, anything near 8.0 is awesome. Only Green Bay was better than New England in 2011.

Real Passing YPA is a key measure of team success: teams who won the Real Passing YPA battle last year went 186-70 (.727), according to our Correlation to Victory charts at CHFF Insider.

Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (No. 29) – New England’s opponents ripped off 7.13 yards every time they dropped back to pass. This performance was so bad that it nearly negated the incredible performance of the Patriots offense.

For a little perspective, Pittsburgh’s defense topped this indicator, allowing opponents just 4.87 Real Passing YPA.

Look at it this way: Pittsburgh’s opponents produced 146 yards for every 30 times they dropped back to pass. New England’s opponents produced 214 yards on 30 drop backs. Those 68 yards represent a huge discrepancy in performance.

Real Quarterback Rating (No. 3) – Real QB Rating is our measure of all aspects of QB play, including passing plus rushing, sacks, fumbles, etc. The Patriots produced a Real QB Rating of just 99.35. Only the Packers (112.71) and Saints (105.43) were better.

Defensive Real Quarterback Rating (No. 24) – New England’s opponents produced a Real QB Rating of 80.38. Even the defense for 2-14 St. Louis was better (78.73)

Real QB Rating may be the single most important measure of team success in football. Teams who won the Real QB Rating last year went 223-33 (.871), plus 9-2 (.818) in the postseason, according to our Correlation to Victory chart at CHFF Insider. No stat in football has a higher Correlation to Victory.

Offensive Passer Rating (No. 3) – Offensive Passer Rating merely applies the formula to measure individual quarterbacks to the entire team, meaning how all its quarterbacks performed (Brady threw all but one pass for the Patriots in 2011, so this number is a reflection of his performance). New England posted a 105.7 Offensive Passer Rating in 2011.

Only Green Bay and New Orleans were better – and they were two equally imbalanced teams that also failed to win a championship despite historically great offenses.

Defensive Passer Rating (No. 21) – Defensive Passer Rating takes the passer rating formula used to measure quarterbacks and applies it to pass defense. It has had a HUGE correlation to championship potential and success throughout NFL history.

New England posted an 86.11 Defensive Passer Rating in 2011. For a little perspective, only four teams in history have won a championship with a DPR higher than 80, and none as high as 86.11. The Patriots simply did not have a Super Bowl-caliber defense in 2011.

The Super Bowl champion 2003 Patriots posted the best Defensive Passer Rating in franchise history (56.2). This was the same team that picked off Peyton Manning four times in the AFC title game.

Passer Rating Differential (No. 4) – Passer Rating Differential is what we call The Mother of All Stats: 36 percent of all NFL champs since 1940 have finished No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential; 65 percent finished in the Top 3. It merely subtracts a team’s Defensive Passer Rating from its Offensive Passer Rating.

I made a presentation about the importance of PRD at NFL Films this summer.

With a PRD of 19.58, the 2011 Patriots were well within the historic norms of an NFL champion. We made a pretty detailed presentation about PRD at NFL Films this summer, which you can see here. The problem, of course, was the lack of balance. One unit, the offense, was largely responsible for that solid PRD.

Winning the passer rating battle is critical to team success. Teams that pass the ball more efficiently went 201-55 (.785) last year, according to our Correlation to Victory chart at CHFF Insider.

Offensive Hog Index (No. 7) – The Patriots did not run the ball particularly well last year: 23rd with an average of 4.03 YPA. But that ability is completely overrated by fans and analysts.

The 2003 Patriots won a Super Bowl with one of the worst rushing attacks in football, averaging just 3.4 YPA on the ground (30th out of 32 teams). The Giants were dead last rushing the football last year (3.47 YPA), but still won the Super Bowl.

The reality is that teams win when they pass effectively, not when they run effectively. Otherwise, the 2011 Patriots were solid across the board in the other components of our Offensive Hog Index: No. 4 protecting the passer and No. 5 on third down.

Defensive Hog Index (No. 25) – Once again, the Patriots were much better on the offensive side of the ball than on the defensive side of the ball. The Patriots couldn’t stop the run (No. 24), were merely average rushing the passer (No. 15) and were terrible again in third-down defense (No. 28).

Rushing the passer is particularly critical; since we introduced the Defensive Hog Index in 2007, the average Super Bowl champ has ranked on average No. 2 or No. 3 among all 32 NFL teams at pressuring the passer. The 2011 Giants were the third-best team in football rushing the passer.

Scoreability (No. 4) – Scoreability is our measure of offensive efficiency. It tracks how effectively teams turn yards into points.

The Patriots are consistently one of the best teams in football in offensive efficiency. They averaged a point scored for every 13.35 yards of offense, a VERY strong number. The Patriots scored the equivalent of 7 points for every 93.5 yards of offense.

Bendability (No. 2) – The Bendability Index is our measure of defensive efficiency and our effort to quantify the bend-but-don’t-break phenomenon. It measures how hard teams make opponents work for points.

New England is historically the leading and prototypical “bend but don’t break defense” even in the down defensive years, and 2011 was no exception. The Patriots forced opponents to march 19.23 yards for every point scored. To put it in perspective, opponents needed to churn out a daunting 134.6 yards to score the equivalent of a TD and extra point. Only San Francisco was better.

At the end of the day, Scoreability and Bendability tell us which teams are the best at what is often called “situational football.” And the Patriots are consistently good to great at situational football.

There are few indicators in football more important than winning this battle of efficiency, of playing smarter situation football. Teams that won the Scoreability-Bendability battle last year went 216-40 (.844) in 2011, plus a perfect 11-0 in the playoffs.

Smart teams win games. And the Patriots are consistently a smart team. But smart teams with good quarterbacks and lights-out pass defenses win Super Bowls. The Patriots were just 2 of 3 in that equation last year.

If the Patriots can only amp up pressure on quarterbacks this year and improve the defense – and the pass defense specifically – a fourth Lombardi Trophy is well within reach.

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