The 2011 Patriots Defense: Better than the 2001 Defense?

The 2001 Pats defense carried the team to the playoffs. During Tom Brady’s first season, it took him a while to get up to NFL speed. There were significant growing pains evident in his performance, but he was able to count on the dependable defense to get the job done. With former Patriot greats like Teddy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, and Ty Law, the defense was one of the best in the league. But could this year’s Patriots defense be even better? The suggestion may seem outlandish when you look at the rankings or listen to the analysts, but the 2011 defense is just as good when the effects of the offense, the player improvement, and the new players on defense are considered.

The defensive rankings show that the teams are at least comparable in the major defensive statistical categories:

Team Scoring Total Yards Passing Yards Rushing Yards
2001 Patriots 6th 24th 24th 19th
2011 Patriots 15th 31st 31st 17th

Both teams have the Belichick-ian defensive philosophy geared towards stopping the run and preventing teams from scoring touchdowns. The biggest contributing factor in the difference in ranking between the ’01 and ’11 Pats isn’t even on defense – It is Tom Brady himself. In ‘01, Tom Brady struggled to adjust to the level of competition of the NFL. The team relied on the defense to keep the team competitive in most games. The Pats scored 21 or less points in nine games that season. The ‘11 Pats have scored less than 21 twice this season. This marked increase in scoring lead to more blowout wins than in ’01. Blowouts lead to a flood of garbage time points against a second string defense. By subtracting the total number of points given up towards the end of big wins (54 points in 6 games) and adding back in the league average of 5 points per quarter, the ‘11 Patriots would be tied for 8th in scoring defense. This increase in ranking makes the ’11 defense better than the ‘01 Patriots given the competition the Patriots faced this year.

The same principle applies to an even greater extent regarding passing and total yardage. When a team is winning, they play a defense that allows a yardage gain, but keeps the opposition from getting a potential big play. The defense doesn’t want to give up a quick score to let the other team back in the game, and so they try to give up 5 yard plays all the way down the field. The garbage time yardage in blowout wins would also reduce the yardage totals by a significant margin, but it is hard to quantify by how much. Someone could argue that the yardage total would be reduced to make the difference between the ’01 and ’11 Patriots defenses negligible.

The players involved in both defenses are also comparable. Andre Carter had been a force to be reckoned with on the defensive line before he was injured. Vince Wilfork is an unmovable object that does not allow running up the middle. The young linebacker core of Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, Rob Ninkovich, and Brandon Spikes has been improving with experience and health. They are comparable to the Roman Phifer, Mike Vrabel, and Bruschi package of ‘01. On a skill level standpoint the ’11 group is younger and more talented, but the experience of the ’01 defense worked to their benefit.

[caption id="attachment_172" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Vince Wilfork should be happy with how the defense played against Denver. (Keith Allison)"][/caption]

The biggest difference between the two teams is the secondary. The ‘01 Pats had a couple of Pro-Bowlers in their prime with Lawyer Milloy and Law, and veteran leadership with Otis Smith. Some people could argue that the young ‘11 defensive backfield can’t compare in the slightest to the Patriots defenses of old due to factors such as Devin McCourty struggling in coverage and Patrick Chung being prone to injury. Part of the blame for this lack of experience and depth falls at Bill Belichick’s feet. The preseason release of Pro-Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather is a questionable decision. There has also been a revolving door of signings and cuts, including four major contributors from the last and current season who were released. These transactions leave the Patriots with a secondary mainly comprised of young players with little NFL experience.

Despite the issues it has faced the secondary has emerged late in the season. During the last game of the regular season the Pats moved McCourty to safety from defensive back. He has struggled all season in coverage as a cornerback, but as a free roaming safety he looks more at home. Chung is fully healthy and has played well in the last few games. The QB turned WR turned DB Julian Edelman has been a valuable find on the defensive side, and can be a consistent slot corner. Kyle Arrington and Sterling Moore are young guys that have looked decent in their roles as cornerbacks. Together, this unit has been improving even without the star players like Milloy and Law that the ‘01 Pats boasted. In a few years, these players may get that same kind of league wide recognition, but for now they are discreetly looking like a group that has the ability to keep up with some of the best offenses.

Overall, the current Patriot’s defense appears to be on par with the ‘01 defense. That team came on strong during the 2001 playoffs, allowing a total of only 37 points in 3 games en route to New England’s first Superbowl win. The current Patriots’ held the Broncos to 10 points and looked phenomenal. The defense will need to be just as good when the Patriots play the Ravens this weekend. As all Pats fans know, their defense can stop Brady, so a close game should be expected. The defense will hold Flacco in check and gives the Patriots a clear advantage.

The Pats will meet a great defense with a good offense in the Superbowl, whether it is the 49ers or the Giants. Either will be a tough opponent keeping the game close. There, the defense will be challenged much like it was in Superbowl XXXVI when it held the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams to 17 points. This 2011 Patriots defense is strong enough to hold the Ravens in check, and to repeat Superbowl history this year against either of the opponents they may face.

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