Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

20 Oct 2008

Brady's Absence Isn't the Only Problem

In this week's MNF column, the problems facing the Patriots franchise with or without one Tom Brady are discussed.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 20 Oct 2008

15 comments, Last at 24 Oct 2008, 1:32pm by MJK


by beastmode (not verified) :: Mon, 10/20/2008 - 1:19am

what a delightful column, douglas

your attention to detail is what makes you one of my favorite FO writers

by The Blow Leprechaun (not verified) :: Mon, 10/20/2008 - 9:20am

My problem with these articles is twofold:

1) I'm tired of them. How many times are they going to be written? It seems like every week a new article comes out saying more or less the same thing. We get it. The Patriots defense isn't playing very well.

2) It kind of overlooks how much a functional offense helps a defense. Very few defenses can play at a sustained high level without some form of offensive aid, just so they can get some rest. Even the Bears and Ravens when they made the Super Bowl had offenses able to keep the ball a little bit, even if they seldom scored any touchdowns. Bad offense kills a defense by making them tired and putting them in terrible short field situations and by putting them in a situation where every mistake they make is amplified because giving up a touchdown can be catastrophic.

by Independent George :: Mon, 10/20/2008 - 10:07am

So, basically, had the Brady not been injured, the 2008 Pats = 2003 Colts?

by B :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 10:33am

More like the 2004 Colts. A Defense that can produce turnovers, with a pass rush that's good when the other team is forced to throw on nearly every down, but can't stop a sustained, balanced attack. Basically a defense that's good at protecting leads but gets in trouble when their offense struggles.

by Jean Sansterre (not verified) :: Mon, 10/20/2008 - 11:35am

In response to Blow Leprachaun, as regards your second point:

I have to point out that the Patriots' offense is only at -5.4%, which ain't great, but it's not horrible, being 21st in the league. And if I recall, the Bears and Ravens offenses weren't much better than average, if at all. -5.4% is hardly so horrible as to be single-handedly destroy a defense. Note, for example, that Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Baltimore all have worse offenses (so far) and yet have the 1st, 4th and 5th best defenses in the league...

However, interestingly, there are certain correlations in the data that support your position. There is a correlation of -.582 between offense and defense for the 10 worst offenses in the league, which is significant, and reflects that the worst offenses tend to have notably worse defenses. This may just be a fluke, (badly run demoralized teams tend to be bad on both sides of the ball, etc) but there is enough there to give your position some weight. The Patriots, however, were the wrong team to make that point with.

As a side note, the correlation for the top 10 offenses is actually positive, (.406) meaning that the best offenses in the NFL actually tend to have notably worse defenses. Frankly, that's to be expected with a regression to the mean, but the bottom 10? That's pretty neat.

by mla2131 :: Mon, 10/20/2008 - 1:14pm

Good comment.

by The Blow Leprechaun (not verified) :: Mon, 10/20/2008 - 2:12pm

My point is more that the Patriots defense would be performing better if Tom Brady were still running the offense, assuming the offense performed better as well. This has the advantage of being completely unprovable.

I wonder if there's any correlation between offensive improvement and defensive improvement from one year to the next? I'm not sure it proves anything, but it might be interesting.

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 10/20/2008 - 4:08pm

This may just be a fluke, (badly run demoralized teams tend to be bad on both sides of the ball, etc)

It's true the other way, too. You don't expect offense and defense on a team to be independent, because they're both built by the same front office.

The best way to look at it would be to look at the average defensive stats before and after the loss of an offensive player (primarily the quarterback). FO's already done something like that, and it is pretty clear that a weak offense makes a defense worse.

by MJK :: Mon, 10/20/2008 - 12:00pm

Your main conclusions seem to be that the Pats weaknesses go beyond Brady and consist mainly of a drop in their running game and in their defense. While I agree that these are indeed their main weaknesses (along with the fact that they have seemed to have removed any pass play between 12 and 25 yards from their playbook), I disagree that these two deficiencies are somehow independent of losing Brady and would have occurred even if he were there.

I think the drop in the running game is DIRECTLY related to having Cassel instead of Brady. As I alluded to above, the Pats seem to have removed any intermediate to medium long passes from their playbook. They still try the occasional long bomb to Moss, and he still usually draws double coverage, but Cassel has been unable to be on target consistently with these and so teams aren't flooding the backfield to stop the passing game that much. Instead, Cassel is running all swings, screens, five yard outs and comeback patterns, and short slants. So teams are crowding the line and stuffing the box, keying in on both the run and the short passing game. Obviously, it's a lot easier to run the ball when the other team double covers two of your WR's who consistently run 20 yard patterns and keeps extra DB's back just to be safe, than it is when they always eight or nine men camping within 10 yards of the LOS.

Secondly, I think the lack of pass rush has been due, in part, to the fact that teams are running a more balanced attack against the Patriots. The pass rush wasn't all that good last year, but because teams trailed so often, or at the least found themselves in shootouts, they were forced to abandon the run and pass pass pass, which allowed the Pats to focus on the pass and get more pressure. This year, teams know that Cassel isn't going to beat them, so they run the ball more and the Pats have to spend more effort keying in on the run.

I'm not saying that the defense is bad this year because Brady went down...I'm saying that the defense was actually pretty bad last year, too, but it got hidden because other teams were forced to be one-dimensional against them.

Oh, yeah, and you're right, neither O'Neal nor Hobbs is as good as Samuel. But maybe two or three other CB's out there (Bailey and Asomugah, and possibly Clements?) are... The Pats were able to put together a pretty good defense with the likes of Hank Poteat and Earthwind Moreland as starting CB's five years ago, because they had excellent safety play and an killer pass rush with four disciplined, talented LB's. Now the pass rush is gone and the safety play is decent but not amazing, and we see an overall mediocre-to-bad defense...

by Doug Farrar :: Mon, 10/20/2008 - 12:53pm

Oh, I didn't mean that the ground game issues and Brady's absence were not tied together -- quite the opposite. That's why I wrote that Brady's mere presence would cause defenses to "unclench", and that the high productivity of the Brady-led passing game hid the fact that New England hasn't really had a marquee back since Corey Dillon in 2004.

Re: the correlation between the offense and defense: I tend to agree in general, but I had X number of words there. At a certain point, I had to get all the "what is" in there and just provide as much "why" as possible.

by PatsFan :: Mon, 10/20/2008 - 5:13pm

Because god forbid that ESPN actually give you FO guys a reasonable amount of space to write about ghings. *sigh*

by Purds :: Mon, 10/20/2008 - 7:05pm

Why is the Patriots pass rush so tepid this year? They seem to have spent quite a bit of very high draft picks on the D-line, and I don't watch them all that closely, but everyone in the past has seemed to think those were picks well chosen. Have those former 1's and 2's dropped off?

by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 10:18am

I'm not sure Purds. To me, Wilfork and Warren both look great. Seymour doesn't look like he looked in 2003/4, but still OK. The knee injuries have definitely taken their toll.

I think a lot of the problem is that Thomas just isn't as good as they thought he was going to be, and Vrable is starting to lose it (which is surprising, he looked pretty good last year). Another issue is that Bruschi used to be a phenomenal blitzer, and he can't do that anymore. Honestly, I can't say its any one thing, but I don't think the 3 in the 3-4 is the problem. I think its in the 4.

Meyo looks great though. Haven't seen as perfect a form tackler as him (on the patriots) in years.

by MJK :: Fri, 10/24/2008 - 1:32pm

Remember, the Patriots (like several other team) have their D-line play a two-gap technique, whether they're in a 4-3 or a 3-4. I'm not an expert on that, but I'm pretty sure that the general idea is that the three first round draft picks on the line (Wilfork, Warren, and Seymour) are supposed to play directly over their man and cover the gaps on both sides of him. Hence, they are not trying to shoot gaps and will rarely get rapid pressure. Infact, with 3 DLinemen working against five OLinemen, it is probably really rare for one of those linemen to get direct pressure. However, it is supposed to force double teams and free up one or more of the LB's to find wherever the weakest part of the protection is and hit there, usually coming from a direction that is hard for the QB to predict. For example, if Wilfork commands a double team between the C and RG, and the RT has his hands full with Warren, then one of the ILB's is supposed to recognize that there is a gap he can shoot there and hit it, while the other stays back to cover the short crossing routes. Or if the protection shifts inside to fill these holes, then one or both of the OLB's is supposed to be free coming off the edge.

I think Rich nailed it when he said that the problem is the 4 in the 3-4, not the 3. Historically, the Pats got good pressure when McGinest was playing for them, and then later when Colvin was playing well. I've been disappointed with Thomas and Vrabel and Bruschi are definitely slowing down.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that the defense has become too predictable. In 2003, you had Bruschi and Johnson on the inside, and McGinest and Vrabel on the outside, and three out of four of those guys were big threats rushing the passer, so the extra LB could come from anywhere (the whole point of playing a two-gap 3-4). Not so now. Mayo is the best coverage LB on the team, so he almost never rushes (at least, that I've seen), and on the outside, Vrabel is a much better rusher than Thomas. So teams just key their protection to stopping Bruschi on the inside (not that hard anymore) and Vrabel on the outside, and all the surprise is now gone.

by Scot (not verified) :: Mon, 10/20/2008 - 10:00pm

Wow, the fix is in. Hard to believe that the NFL could be any more obvious in its slanted officiating.