Part 1 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Part 2 is now available: Buffalo Bills.
|Eff. Rating||Adj. Rating||Rank|
|Pass EPA||Rush EPA||Adj. Pass Rate|
The Patriots made things easy for Mac Jones in 2021. Leaning on one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, they ran the ball a lot and they ran the ball effectively. They unlocked the playbook one piece at a time, focusing on keeping the pocket clean and getting the ball out quickly. This approach led to the 2nd-fewest quarterback pressures and allowed them to bring Jones along comfortably. He responded well. Not many rookie quarterbacks take their team to the playoffs.
But the Patriots’ offensive success must be contextualized. Their impressive numbers were heavily skewed by four outlier games in which the Patriots dominated bad teams from start to finish. They faced an easy schedule overall, playing just five regular season games against playoff teams, including a heavily depleted version of the Titans and the Bills in weather so bad that Jones threw the ball only three times. It’s no surprise that a team built to run excelled against bad teams but looked average against the best competition.
I think this offensive philosophy is here to stay. Bill Belichick likely anticipated that NFL defenses would shift towards stopping explosive plays in the passing game, leaving a vulnerability up front against teams that beef up and lean on the ground game. He and Josh McDaniels designed the offense to exploit this weakness. The Patriots played their best offensive football against defenses built to stop the pass. Chart A shows the Patriots’ opponent-adjusted effectiveness against each opponent ranked by its relative defensive strength stopping the pass versus stopping the run, with teams that stop the pass better on the left. They trended towards worse performances against teams that were relatively better at stopping the run, including four of their worst five performances against NYJ (-1.34 Adj. Rating), ATL (-0.63), HOU (-0.19), and CAR (-0.16).
The Patriots had zero truly bad games on offense after some expected early struggles. Outside of their dominating performances, they generally played to the level of their competition. But average offense only goes so far against the NFL’s best teams. Even one of their more impressive wins on the season – a 27-24 victory over the Chargers – involved the Patriots taking the lead for good on an interception touchdown. Jones flashed playmaking ability at times, like when he forced overtime against Dallas with a 75-yard strike to Bourne. But he did not string together these types of plays with consistency. Even that crucial play came on the heels of a pick-six.
It’s still very early in his career arc, so the range of outcomes is wide. But based on his rookie film, I think Mac Jones has career upside in the range between Kirk Cousins and Eli Manning. If the defense plays well and the run game takes the pressure off, he’s capable of making one or two key plays to win a big game. But he’s not going toe-to-toe with Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen any time soon, especially with the Patriots’ current weapons on the perimeter. Their path to offensive success makes them heavily schedule-dependent and unlikely to advance far in the playoffs.
This creates an opportunity for value betting on Patriots games. When they are at full strength (particularly on the offensive line) and facing a bad or banged-up team, they are capable of covering big spreads and alternate lines. Betting models built on power ratings underrate their ability to dominate bad teams. On the flip side, their offense is somewhat fragile. Bettors tend to undervalue the impact of offensive line injuries, particularly to a team built this way. This fragility compounds against good teams where the Patriots project to play from behind, forced to abandon what they do best. Unless Jones takes a big leap forward in 2022 or the Patriots add some serious talent on the outside, expect these exploitable trends to continue.
|Eff. Rating||Adj. Rating||Rank|
|Pass EPA||Rush EPA||Blitz Rate||Press. Rate|
Once again, the Patriots defense thrived against inexperienced and mistake-prone quarterbacks by disguising coverages and punishing mistakes. They were relatively weak against the run, as they were content to give up moderate chunks of yardage and force teams to be patient. Their pre-snap looks invited impatient or confused quarterbacks to try to beat them through the air, but strong, disciplined coverage led to a high rate of incompletions and turnovers.
They particularly excelled at taking away each team’s primary weapon in the passing game. The defensive backs knew exactly how much room to give receivers while still being able to make a play and mixed strong man coverage with disciplined deep zone looks. Their relative pass DVOA against #1 wide receivers compared to their pass DVOA in general was 3rd-best in the NFL.
They also gave up the 2nd-lowest completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks, helping them outperform against teams that relied on yards after the catch for explosive plays. By making it tough to complete easy passes, they reduced the effectiveness of passing attacks focused on getting the ball to receivers in space. Chart B tracks the Patriots’ relative defensive effectiveness against each opponent ranked by its share of pass yards obtained through the air (versus after the catch).
Their worst defensive performances (-3.16 and -0.76) came against the Bills, who gained most of their yards through the air. But they excelled against teams like the Panthers (+1.17), Chargers (+0.89), and Browns (+0.86), who struggled primarily because they couldn’t complete passes to sustain drives, posting a combined 52.5% completion rate in those games. The most successful teams facing New England were able to matriculate down the field consistently with sound running and diverse passing attacks. When teams were consistently successful, it also opened things up downfield because defensive backs had to come down and help. Teams that failed to gain at least 8 or 9 yards on first and second down set up obvious passing situations, which played right into the strength of a defense that excelled in coverage but was vulnerable on the ground.
As a result, teams with high rates of converting short third and fourth downs played well against the Patriots. This metric indicates strength up front and the ability to grind out tough yards when needed. Chart C tracks the Patriots’ relative defensive effectiveness against each opponent ranked by its DVOA on third/fourth and short. Teams that were able to pick up tough yards really caused the Patriots problems on defense, such as the Bills (-3.16 and -0.76), Cowboys (-0.70), and Bucs (-0.33):
The Patriots posted excellent overall defensive numbers in 2021. In the regular season they earned my 8th-highest raw Effectiveness Rating (which does not factor in quality of opponent). They also had the 4th-best EPA/play and the 4th-best DVOA. But these numbers significantly overstate their actual level of play. They faced a cakewalk schedule of offenses that featured Tua Tagovailoa, Zach Wilson, Jameis Winston, Davis Mills, Mike White, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield/Case Keenum, Ryan Tannehill (with no A.J. Brown, Henry, or Julio), Carson Wentz, Trevor Lawrence, and Tua again. Even the strongest quarterbacks they faced outside of Josh Allen (Brady and Herbert) were top-5 in yards after the catch, which played into their strength on defense.
They also got absolutely steamrolled by the Bills in the playoffs. These numbers don’t get included in most season-long metrics but it was the most important game of the season and they allowed the single best offensive performance in NFL history. The Bills scored a touchdown on every single drive. That’s not good. When you include that game, they fall from 8th to 13th in Effectiveness, and when you adjust for opponent they fall all the way to 17th. They were an average defense that took advantage of a favorable schedule, then got exposed when it mattered most.
Belichick always gets the most out of his defense and 2021 was no exception. He maximizes talent and the team plays with discipline, as evidenced by the fact that they gave up the 4th-fewest first downs by penalty. But they struggled against methodical offenses, particularly when playing from behind. This effect compounded the Patriots’ success against bad teams and struggles against good teams, leading to spots where bettors thought too highly of them after some impressive-looking wins. After a 7-game win streak against mostly bad competition (and the Bills in debilitating weather), they finished the season 1-4 straight up and against the spread. Looking at regular season defensive numbers will cause many to overrate the Patriots and there could be value fading this narrative in the offseason.
When to bet on the Patriots: When their offensive line is healthy and they are projected to play with the lead, particularly against an inexperienced or turnover-prone QB. They can cover big spreads against bad teams with a run game that complements a pass defense that excels against teams forced to pass.
When to fade the Patriots: If they suffer offensive line injuries the system fails. In addition, blowout wins against bad competition can make them look like a top team and create value going against them when they play against a more complete team that can sustain drives on offense.
What to look for in the offseason: There is some uncertainty on the offensive line and defensive backfield. These units were the Patriots’ biggest strengths in 2021 and they will need to retain or replace key players to remain successful. Also look to see if they bolster the receiving corps, which could help Mac Jones take a step forward in year two.
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