Any Given Sunday: Eagles Over Patriots
by Andrew Healy
If you had to predict which team in the NFL would give up three return touchdowns in a game, two of them on special teams, the Patriots would probably be your last choice. Since Bill Belichick became coach in 2000, the Patriots have turned the most unpredictable aspect of football into just another reliable cog in their machine. New England has ranked in the top half of the league in special teams every year since Belichick took over and has cracked the top ten 12 times, including this year (through 12 weeks, anyway). This season's unit had emerged as potentially Belichick's best group yet. Entering the game against the Eagles, New England ranked first in special teams DVOA.
Then on Sunday, the Patriots' dominant special teams didn't just have their worst day of the season. They had the worst day any team has had this season. Their -44.9% special teams DVOA, fueled by Darren Sproles' 83-yard punt return touchdown and Chris Maragos' punt block that led to a 24-yard touchdown return, was also the worst special teams day that Bill Belichick has had as a head coach, and that includes his time leading a cursed franchise.
Given the Patriots' dominance on special teams until this weekend, Sunday's meltdown is different from the normal craziness that can happen on special teams. For games in Week 10 and later, Sunday's game marked the first time that a special teams unit entered the game tops in the league and then posted the worst performance of the season. That -44.9% DVOA is also the lowest rating for a top-ranked special teams unit in Week 10 or later in our data (since 1989).
|Worst Special Teams DVOA for Top-Ranked Units, Week 10 and later|
|Year||Week||Team||Opp||Outcome||Sp Tm DVOA|
Watching on Sunday, that 2005 Giants game came to mind, with a 90-plus-yard pick-six also adding to the special teams swing. But most of the worst games on this list don't approach the Patriots' rating on Sunday. That low 49ers rating from 2011, for example, mainly came from three missed field goal attempts. Even when they struggle, top-ranked special teams units only implode the way the Patriots did about once a decade.
We know that the Patriots loss would matter more going forward if it was driven by defensive failures or particularly offensive ones, since those units are more predictable, but only one special teams failure from Sunday likely says anything about upcoming games. Nate Ebner's surprise onside drop kick probably won't come up again, but it was a strange decision for two reasons. The Patriots shouldn't have been looking for chances to increase variance with a 14-0 lead as an eight-point favorite. And if you think it's a great play, then why show your hand when you could save it for a big spot? On the other hand, Belichick's explanation that there was little downside seems to have fallen on deaf ears, but that at least deserves some consideration. Surprise onside kicks that go further downfield, like Ebner's drop kick, don't give the opponent the ball in your own territory even when they fail. So Belichick is right for that and right to coach without fear. And to a drop-kick advocate such as myself (for fellow aficionados, here's maybe the best page on Wikipedia), Belichick's creativity means more for the Patriots' Super Bowl prospects than the 20 yards of field position they lost.
While the onside kick was strange but not worrying, the breakdowns on the two touchdowns were more concerning. On the punt block, the breakdowns came both from the blocking and the coaching, with injuries perhaps playing a subtle role. The Eagles had double-teamed Patriots' special teams ace Matthew Slater on a first-quarter punt where he suffered a stinger, just one in a series of injuries that he has racked up this season. If Slater had been on the field for Ryan Allen's punt with 0:15 to go in the first half, the Eagles' decision to not double-team him may have stood out more as an indicator that they planned to bring some heat and prompted a countermeasure. Much more important was the blocking breakdown that occurred on the left side of the line. The mistake on the line happened when Darius Fleming (lined up in the left tackle spot) and Geneo Grissom (lined up at left guard) let Maragos come through untouched. Fleming was signed from the practice squad just 11 days ago, in part to respond to the injury to Jamie Collins, and his role in part reflects the injury dominoes that have fallen on defense.
The punt block is actually a time where Belichick is right that the Patriots needed to coach better, too. Given the game situation -- 15 seconds left in the half on their 38-yard line -- the Patriots should have been looking for the block and could easily have brought both gunners tight to the formation, which would have prevented Fleming from feeling the need to swing out wide and open the hole for Maragos, then just punted towards the sideline. It's an easy second-guess, but Chip Kelly basically said that he called the block because the situation meant he might as well try it.
So the Patriots find themselves in the midst of a decline not only on offense, where they've dropped from first in DVOA over the first eight weeks to eighth over the last five games, but on special teams. There, the drop is even bigger, from first to 25th. However, while the Patriots have now lost two games in a row on special teams mistakes (Chris Harper's muffed punt against the Broncos also cost him his roster spot), that drop in DVOA is mostly about Sunday's game. The Patriots are no longer the best special teams in the league; they now rank sixth. It will take those key injury dominoes getting put back into place for the Patriots' dominant units -- not just their offense but also their special teams -- to again be among the league's best.
The Patriots' Shuffling Line
Last season, the Patriots' offensive line was moderately disastrous as they shuffled units for the first four weeks before finally settling on the unit that kept Tom Brady alive. Even though that unit coalesced with Solder-Connolly-Stork-Wendell-Vollmer, it's somewhat hard to believe the Patriots ranked second in adjusted sack rate by the end of the season. But Brady has made even average offensive lines look excellent by adjusted sack rate for almost his entire career. Since 2004, when Brady has been healthy, the Patriots have ranked in the top ten every year by adjusted sack rate. (Note that the Patriots ranked 26th in the Bernard Pollard year.)
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|Patriots' Adj Sack Rate With Tom Brady|
|Year||Adj Sack Rate||Adj Sack Rk|
This year, however, even Brady's quick decision-making hasn't been able to make this line look good by adjusted sack rate. And it's not about Brady needing to hold the ball longer without Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Through the first nine weeks of the season, the Patriots had almost an identical adjusted sack rate (5.6 percent) as they have over the last four (6.0 percent) since Edelman's injury.
The line has given Brady some of the worst pass protection of his career, making his level of play even more remarkable. Continuity can't wait any longer. Amazingly, the Patriots have started consecutive games with the same five-man unit just once this entire season.
By the VOA
Even on their worst day of the season, the Patriots were above average both on offense and defense. The Eagles, on the other hand, come in below average on offense. They averaged just 4.4 yards per offensive play on the day.
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|DVOA (Opponent adjustments included)|
|VOA (No opponent adjustments)|