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Groundhog Day: New England's Same Old Defensive Struggles

Posted Sep 27, 2012

Has the younger, faster new-look Patriots defense, for which we had such high hopes at the start of the season taken a huge step backward? We take a look at the defensive passer rating of the Patriots in this edition of the Cold, Hard Football Facts.

There are two types of analysis here on Planet Pigskin.

There are the happy things that fans want to hear to feel good about their team. And then there is the harsh, inalterable reality of the Cold, Hard Football Facts.

The painful reality of the 2012 season through three games is this: The younger, faster new-look Patriots defense, for which we had such high hopes at the start of the season, has not only failed to take a step forward this year, it's taken a huge step backward, too.

The Patriots cannot win a Super Bowl without drastic and sudden improvements on pass defense.

The 2012 Patriots right now are on pace to field the worst pass defense in the entire 53-season history of the franchise.

One of the single most important measures of defensive success is what we call Defensive Passer Rating – the formula for quarterbacks applied to pass defense.

It's what we call a Quality Stat – a stat that has a direct correlation to winning football games. You can look at any franchise in the NFL and there's a near 100 percent chance that you can track successful teams largely by looking at Defensive Passer Rating and nothing else.

Right now, the results are troubling for the Patriots. Here are the five worst Defensive Passer Ratings in franchise history, with the records of each team.

Worst Defensive Passer Ratings (Patriots history)
2012 Patriots (1-2) – 95.13
1972 Patriots (3-11) – 92.2
1989 Patriots (5-11) – 91.6
1995 Patriots (6-10) – 91.4
1990 Patriots (1-15) – 89.9

Ouch. That's bad. Granted, it's only three games into the season. And, granted, none of those other Patriots teams boasted a Hall of Fame quarterback like Tom Brady, which mitigates some of the problems on defense.

But New England has not exactly faced Unitas, Marino and Montana in its first three games, either.

There are still 13 games left for the defense to improve. But the early results raise troubling questions about the team's ability to compete for a Super Bowl this year, especially as we close in on the end of the Brady Era.

We discussed the importance of Defensive Passer Rating in a presentation we made this summer at NFL Films.

One statistical highlight: 20 of 72 NFL champions (28%) since 1940 finished the year No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating. Better than half (38 of 72; 53%) finished the year ranked in the Top 3.

In other words: great pass defenses consistently win championships.

The Patriots themselves, like any franchise, are a great example of the importance Defensive Passer Rating.

The 2003 Patriots boasted a 56.2 Defensive Passer Rating, the best in franchise history. This was merely the team that won the first of back-to-back Super Bowls, launched the NFL-record 21-game win streak and began a streak of 34 victories over two seasons, the most by any team over a two-year span.

The 2003 Patriots were also the team that embarrassed league MVP and future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning with four INTs in the AFC title game.

The 1976 Patriots are second on the list, with a 60.9 Defensive Passer Rating. This was the best team in franchise history before 2001. Steve Grogan & Co. went 11-3 and destroyed the 13-1 Oakland Raiders in the regular season – Oakland's only loss of the year on their way to a victory in Super Bowl XI.

The 1976 Patriots were truly a Super Bowl-caliber team before losing a rematch with the Raiders in the playoffs on the controversial Sugar Bear Hamilton roughing the passer call.

The 1985 Patriots are third on the list, with a 61.2 Defensive Passer Rating. Raymond Berry's crew was the first in franchise history to reach the Super Bowl. And like any other signature team for the Patriots or any other franchise, they benefited from a great pass defense.

By the way, the famed 1985 Bears defense was tops in the league that year and 10 points better than the No. 2 Patriots, with a 51.2 Defensive Passer Rating.

Notice a trend here, folks? Championships are usually won by great pass defenses.

Recent years have not been so kind to the Patriots. The “Live Ball Era” of the NFL began in 1978. This was the first year of sweeping rule changes that opened up the passing game.

Since then, the average Super Bowl champion has posted a 67.0 Defensive Passer Rating. It's no coincidence that the Patriots have routinely failed to match that mark since their last Super Bowl victory.

2005 – 87.9
2006 – 66.1
2007 – 78.1
2008 – 89.8
2009 – 81.7
2010 – 81.2
2011 – 86.1
2012 – 95.1

Put most simply, the Patriots do not have a Super Bowl-caliber defense. And it's been a long time since they have had one.

But there are still 13 games to play. New England's younger-model defense can begin to turn the corner by shutting down Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

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