The New England Patriots have worked their way back into playoff contention. That might even be selling them short in a conference that has yet to produce a dominant team. At 6-4, the Patriots are currently the sixth seed in the AFC and just a half-game behind the Buffalo Bills for first place in the AFC East.

New England has gotten here behind an offense that has continually improved with a rookie quarterback and a defense that has returned to its place as one of the best units in the league. Per Football Outsiders, the Patriots are currently fifth in defensive DVOA and third in weighted DVOA. They’re eighth in yards allowed per drive and third in points allowed per drive.

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A rebound shouldn’t be surprising after opt-outs and injuries left the Patriots thin on the defense. The 2021 Patriots ranked 26th in defensive DVOA and sported the league’s worst run defense following up a year as the league’s best overall defense.

With a healthier roster and more pieces in place, Bill Belichick is back to making life hell for opposing offenses.

While defenses around the league have adopted more two-high shells, the Patriots remain a team based out of single-high. Per Sports Info Solutions, New England has used the fourth-highest rate of single-high looks pre-snap (58%) and the highest rate of post-snap single-high coverage (64%).

By bringing an extra safety in the box, the Patriots have the third-lowest rate of light boxes (48%) and the second-highest rate of stacked boxes (24%). Most defenses in the league are allocating resources to the back-end and daring teams to run on them, but the Patriots have done the opposite.

Keeping those neutral boxes has been an advantage for New England because they’ve been sound enough to play the run well. On rushing attempts against a seven-man box, the Patriots ranked eighth in EPA per play and sixth in the percentage of plays that produce positive EPA. Having a good enough run defense — and one that has been incredibly physical — is passable when the team is still able to defend the pass at a high level.

The two-deep structure of defenses — especially in the Fangio/Staley/anyone against the Chiefs version — has been put in place to defend against the deep pass and explosive passing plays. By playing in the single-high base, the Patriots aren’t selling out to defend the deep pass, but they’ve still managed to stop it from hurting them too much. New England ranks 10th in EPA per attempt and 12th in success rate allowed on passes of 20 or more air yards against them this season.

Instead, the Patriots are clogging the intermediate level of the field — a place where offenses do just as much damage as they do when throwing deep. This season passes between 11-19 air yards have been worth 0.36 EPA per attempt while deep passes (20+ air yards) have been worth 0.38.

This season, the Patriots are first in EPA per attempt on intermediate throws (-0.23) and positive play rate (38.7%). They lead all defenses in yards per attempt on throws between 11-19 air yards at 6.2. The next best defense is at 7.6.

With one of the highest rates of man coverage in the league, the Patriots have been able to stay tight in coverage and have those extra defenders lurking in the right places.

Against the Chargers in Week 8, Los Angeles had a third-and-9. The Patriots showed a two-high shell and six potential rushers before the snap. At the snap, New England rotated to a single-high look and Kyle Van Noy (53) dropped back into coverage from the A-gap. Against the blitz and pressure, Justin Herbert was forced to step up and throw around Van Noy to hit Mike Williams on a crossing route. That left enough time for Devin McCourty to break on the route and defend the pass for an incompletion.

 

 

On the next drive, the Patriots rushed just four but still got some pressure on Herbert. Safety Adrian Phillips sat in the intermediate level and read the quarterback’s eyes. When a pass was pushed high off the hands of Austin Ekeler, Phillips was in the perfect spot to catch the deflection for an interception.

 

 

There are other times when the Patriots just trust their corners to win in coverage. J.C. Jackson has the ability to take over and cover any team’s opposing No. 1 wide receiver. Early in the season, Jackson was picked on a bit, but he’s been able to turn it on over the past few weeks with close coverage and ball skills. Among 116 cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps on the season, Jackson currently ranks 22nd in Adjusted Yards Allowed per coverage snap (using the pro-football-reference formula that accounts for touchdowns and interceptions). That’s while ranking 100th in targets per coverage snap among those corners.

Here’s Jackson alone on an island against CeeDee Lamb for a pass breakup in Week 6.

 

 

The Patriots are also a defense that uses multiple pre-snap looks to disguise what will come after the snap. Even with those single-high shells, the back-end is rarely static. Few teams muddy up the defensive line better than the Patriots. Let’s go back to the play we just showed with Jackson vs Lamb. Take a look at where Matt Judon (9) starts pre-snap. He’s outside the has and tight end before he starts to creep in.

New England gives a ton of looks up front to confuse offenses and disguise which defenders will rush the passer. Sometimes it’s a heavy blitz, but other times no one comes. No team used a three-man rush more than the Patriots at 19% of their pass snaps, per SIS. This is nothing new. Belichick has long taken advantage of this strategy and it’s something that has carried on with his coaching tree.

For the Patriots, rushing three isn’t a passive approach. They use it after creating that confusion before the snap. Against the Browns, on the play Baker Mayfield was injured, the Patriots showed six potential rushers on the line but only sent three. But given the alignment of the defenders who rushed, and the fakes by those who didn’t, that still allowed Judon to be a free rusher on the play. He had a clear path of Mayfield, who nearly threw an interception as he rushed to get the ball away.

 

Because of the tight coverage and pressure generated from those three-man rushes, the Patriots force offenses to throw quick and short against those looks. On throws of 1-10 air yards against a three-man rush, the Patriots have allowed -0.55 EPA per attempt. It’s another way to flood more bodies into a certain area of the field while never giving up an advantage elsewhere.

When the Patriots do send four, just 63% of the time (23rd), they have the highest pressure rate in the league. Judon is a big piece of that. Per SIS, Judon has the fourth-most pressures in the league on a four-man rush. (Judon also has the second-most pressures with a three-man rush and the 16th most with five or more rushers.) Judon only has one game without a quarterback hit this season, the Week 7 54-13 blowout of the New York Jets.

The ability to get Judon free or just on one-on-ones has unlocked another element for the pass rush that wasn’t quite there last season. Chase Winovich was the closest thing to a full-time pass rusher in the defense and he’ll return to the lineup after missing the past five weeks on injured reserve.

So far this season, this defense has been able to create its own mismatches both along the line and in the secondary. They’ve been able to take advantage of big plays and turnovers that have made life easier on the offense. How long they can continue to force opposing offenses into mistakes will shape how far this team can go late in the season. It will be tested soon with games against the Titans and Bills in Weeks 12 and 13 with a second game against Buffalo in Week 16.

At this rate. the Patriots have a contender-level defense. The pieces in place have opened up numerous looks and strategies that weren’t on the table last season. With one of the best defenses in the league, New England can hang with anyone. It didn;t take long for a return to high level play and that should scare the rest of the AFC.