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Are we overrating the Patriots defense heading into 2023?

Are we overrating the Patriots defense heading into 2023? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

A year ago, all our offseason handwringing centered around the Patriots offense. We fretted it was doomed without a sufficient replacement for Josh McDaniels.

Before August was out, we had solid proof: they were screwed. Which sent us directly into “I told you so” mode.

And so it went for the next five months, the Patriots offense somehow getting worse as the season wore on. The only way to explain the team actually winning eight games was simple. Defense.

If not for that side of the ball, God only knows. The belief that the Patriots have a top-10 defense has bloomed this offseason.

I believed it too.

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It wasn’t until Wednesday that I really took the time to question my opinion of the 2022 Patriots defense. And doing so makes me wonder if I’ve overrated just how trustworthy their defense really is.

A podcast question sent in by Jason Starr wondered if last year’s defense was “Good, very good, excellent or championship caliber.”

My kneejerk thought was “good on the cusp of very good.”

The surface stats backed that up:

  • Eighth in total yards per game (322)

  • Fifth in yards per play (5.02)

  • Sixth in rushing yards per game (105.5)

  • Fourth in rushing yards per play (4.07)

  • 16th in passing yards per game (216.5)

  • Eighth in passing yards per play (6.18)

  • Fourth in pick rate (3.19 percent)

  • Third in sacks per attempt (9.06 percent)

  • Fifth in first downs per game (18.5)

  • Second on fourth down stops (37.04)

  • Second in total takeaways (30)

  • Tenth in points per game (20.4).

  • First in defensive touchdowns (7).

All that’s impressive. But many of those are compilation stats that can be skewed by outlier, single-game performances.

For instance, the Lions went 0-for-6 on fourth down in the Patriots 29-0 Week 5 whitewashing. In the other 16 games, teams went 10-for-21 converting on fourth down. And 50 percent is close to the middle of the NFL pack.

Another? The Patriots finished the year with 54 sacks, tied for third in the league. Yet 15 of those came against Indy’s spot starter Sam Ehlinger (9) and Cardinals backup Colt McCoy (6). Every team has those games so we’re not saying they should be dismissed entirely. But context is important.

It’s also interesting to see where the Patriots lagged. They were 21st in the league on third down (40.25), 22nd in the league in the red zone (touchdowns on 58 percent of red zone trips) and 27th in allowing touchdowns on goal-to-go situations (80 percent).

Bill Belichick’s always preached situational football. Red zone, third down and turnovers, he’s often said, are key indicators of success. The Patriots weren’t great on two out of three.

But the most compelling evidence telling us to hold our collective horses? The quarterbacks they ate alive and the quarterbacks who shredded them.

And the good quarterbacks they faced? They really didn’t stifle a single one.

Here’s the list of the eight opposing quarterbacks who played the majority of the games the Patriots won: Mitch Trubisky, Jared Goff, Jacoby Brissett, Zach Wilson (twice), Colt McCoy, and Skylar Thompson/Teddy Bridgewater in a win over Miami. Only Goff is a projected starter at this point.

The Patriots got eaten alive by Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields. Josh Allen beat them both times. Joe Burrow lit them up for 22 points in the first half of a Christmas Eve game the Patriots wound up losing 22-18 when Cincy checked out in the second half. And the Kirk Cousins-Justin Jefferson combo was too much to handle in a 33-26 loss.

The Patriots gave a decent account of themselves in the season-opening loss at Miami against Tua Tagovailoa. They hung in there against Aaron Rodgers and Derek Carr. But neither the Packers nor Raiders even made the playoffs last year and the Patriots allowed a 30-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds left in the ill-fated loss to Las Vegas.

In short, the pelts the Patriots defense hung on the wall were so underwhelming that it’s hard to say they were very good.

There were extenuating circumstances, of course. The main one being the Patriots were so inefficient offensively, there was constant heat on the defense. That should be fixed this year. And the addition of Christian Gonzalez means they have a potential top-tier corner with the necessary length to deal with the treetop receivers they’ll see.

But there aren’t a lot of Trubiskys, Ehlingers and Wilsons on the Patriots schedule this season. They have two dates with Aaron Rodgers, two with Josh Allen and will also face Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Dak Prescott and Jalen Hurts. Toss in the sometimes highly competent guys like Carr, Tua (twice), Daniel Jones, Carr and Russell Wilson and the opportunity to fatten up on overmatched QBs just isn’t there.

Cancel the season? No. Come on. But as we get ready for training camp with an eye fixed on just how good the Patriots might be in this critical season, it’s worth remembering the context of what their defense got done in 2022. And what it didn’t get done.