After Looking At The Numbers Of The 2017 Patriots Defense, I’m Not Sure That Patricia Will Replicate His Bend-Don’t-Break Philosophy With The Detroit Lions.
The long running narrative this offseason was the Matt Patricia was going to bring his “bend-don’t-break” defense from New England to the Detroit Lions. Bend-but-don’t-break is a phrase that Detroit Lions fans are very familiar with. It’s a term that gets thrown around far more often than it should. It’s a term that is often used to give hope to teams with bad defenses. The truth is that the bend-don’t-break philosophy is far less common, or at least far less frequently used successfully than many would believe.
I took a dive into some of the numbers for Matt Patricia led defenses and found that our expectations of a bend-don’t-break defense may be mislead. This isn’t to say that Matt Patricia isn’t going to be a fantastic coach for the Detroit Lions, simply that we may have been looking at his overall football philosophy wrong. Last year’s New England defense appears to be more of an outlier than a standard, and that is likely because Patricia schemed things differently in order to compensate for some of his personnel weaknesses.
Detroit has plenty of personnel weaknesses on their defense, so Matt Patricia will have to do plenty of scheming to field a successful defense on a week to week basis, but the results of that scheming may not look similar to what the Patriots did in 2017.
How Does A Bend-Don’t-Break Defense Work
The concept behind bend-don’t-break is, in it’s simplest form, to take away the offense’s ability to get big plays. The defense forces the offense into long drives and forces them to string together a lot of plays.
The more plays that you force the offense to perform, the more chances that there are for the offense to make a mistake. The idea is that you let the offense drive before eventually they end the drive with a negative play or turnover. If that fails, the defense is expected to clamp down in the red zone and force a field goal.
What kind of mistakes are we talking about? There are three primary types of plays that can kill a drive in a bend-don’t-break philosophy.
Penalties are a quick way to end a drive. Losing yards, losing downs, negating big plays are all things that can absolutely crush a productive drive by the offense.
The problem here is that the defense has almost no control over offensive penalties. It is very tough to force a team to commit penalties and kill their own drive in this way. The best way to do so is with a good pass rush and penetration up front.
Penalties are something that you have to rely on the offense to commit, and are not necessarily something that the defense has much control over.
While penalties are something that the defense has very little control over, turnovers are something that the defense has some control over. Sure, there are defensive backs that have fantastic ball-skills, great instincts, and have a knack for interceptions, but turnovers often have to do with being in the right place at the right time.
There is more consistency year-to-year with turnovers than some of the other stats that we will get to, but some things are just out of the team’s control. Fumbled hand-offs, a ball getting tipped into the air rather than out of bounds, poor decisions by the opposing quarterbacks are all things that the defense has limited control over.
Sacks are something that the defense has a lot of control over. Sacks are often drive killers and are the best friend of bend-don’t-break defenses.
Sacks are the most consistent of the drive-killing plays, and the ones that the defense has the most control over. While luck dictates both turnovers and penalties to a certain extent, sacks can be generated by both player talent on the defensive side of the ball and scheming by the coaches. This is the area that the Detroit Lions need to excel.
How Does A Defense Force Those Mistakes?
With turnovers and penalties, the idea is that more plays equals more opportunities for mistakes by the offense. They are both luck-based to some degree, so increasing the number of opportunities for the defense to get lucky is the best way to count on mistakes by the offense. This is where the philosophy of forcing long, extended drives pays off.
Pass rush is the best way to increase the odds of all of these mistakes.
Pass rush can force holding penalties. Holding is most prevalent when an offensive lineman is beat. If you can generate pressure and force offensive lineman into bad positions, they will often resort to holding.
Pressure on the quarterback forces poor decisions and can help create turnovers. It forces a quarterback to speed up their processing and throw the ball before they want to. This can lead to mistakes.
When All Else Fails
If the defense takes away the big plays and the offense still manages to sustain a drive and get into the red zone, the defense needs to clamp down. A stout red zone defense is the final line for a bend-don’t-break defense. The key is to force field goals rather than touchdowns. This seems elementary, but without a strong red zone defense, forcing a long drive doesn’t really benefit the team much.
Turnovers are rare. Sacks and penalties can be overcome. Teams are inevitably going to make it to the red zone from time to time, so in order for a bend-don’t-break philosophy to succeed, the defense has to be good at preventing touchdowns in the red zone.
Examining Matt Patricia and the Patriots Defense
Preventing Red Zone Touchdowns
Something that surprised me when digging into some of these numbers is that red zone defense is very inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. While some teams hover around average from year-to-year, very few defenses are able to protect the end zone at an elite level multiple years in a row.
Of the ten teams with the lowest allowed touchdown rate in the red zone in 2012, only four teams returned to the top ten in 2013.
Of the top ten in 2013, only three teams returned in 2014.
Between 2014 and 2015, there were only two teams that remained in the top ten in preventing red zone touchdowns.
Only three teams were in the top ten in both 2015 and 2016.
That’s not good consistency at the top. This leads me to believe that preventing touchdowns in the red zone is less dependent on scheme and personnel than I had originally thought. There seems to be a lot of variance that can probably just be attributed to situational football or just plain luck. Some teams are certainly better at defending their end zone, but it certainly seems that the teams at the top get a little bit of benefit from getting lucky over the course of a season, otherwise you would think that there would be a lot more teams returning to the top ten year after year.
Matt Patricia, the 2017 Patriots, and Explosive Plays
Michael Kist recently wrote a really good article for Bleeding Green Nation detailing the importance of explosive plays and and defending against them. Not giving up big plays is the central strategy of a bend-don’t-break defense.
According to SharpFootballStats.com, Matt Patricia’s defense ranked 23rd at preventing explosive runs and 16th at preventing explosive passes. That isn’t exactly taking away big plays from the opposing offense.
Big plays were certainly a contributing factor in the number of yards that the Patriot’s defense gave up in 2017. They were much more successful in 2016 where they ranked 4th in preventing explosive runs and 14th in preventing explosive pass plays.
So if the defense didn’t take away the big plays in 2017, why was New England so widely considered a “bend-don’t-break” defense last year?
Matt Patricia’s Red Zone Defense
According to pro-football-reference the New England Patriot’s gave up an average of 34 yards per drive last year, second worst in the NFL. Those drives lasted an average of 6.1 plays, third worst in the NFL. Only 9.9% of their defensive drives ended in a turnover, ranking 24th in the NFL. Somehow, with all of this, Matt Patricia’s defense in 2017 ended up allowing on only 30.2% of drives, good for 6th best in the NFL.
How did he accomplish that?
There are a few different stats that stood out to me here.
First of all, the New England Patriots forced opposing offenses into the worst average starting field position in the NFL, almost four full yards below the league average. This allowed them to give up more yards on a per drive basis and still not allow points.
Secondly, teams missed a lot of field goals against the Patriots. This is one of the weirder stats that I found when digging into this.
Teams converted field goal attempts only 71% of the time against the New England Patriots last year. My original thought was that the defense was forcing the opposing offense into longer kicking situations, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Teams attempted only four kicks of over fifty yards against the Patriots in 2017. The 14 attempts against them of 30-39 yards led the league.
New England has been in the top ten in “defending” against field goals each of the last five years and eight of the last ten. The only other team with even remotely similar success is Miami who ranked in the top ten for the last three years.
I’m not quite sure what to make of that, but most of the teams that populate that top ten list every year play in outdoor stadiums, so I wouldn’t expect to see the Detroit Lions have the same sort of success against shorter field goals.
The New England Patriots were the 8th least penalized team in the NFL last year and the 9th least in terms of penalty yards against. Their opponents were penalized 133 times for 1230 yards, both league leading. Since opponent penalties are largely out of the team’s control, I wouldn’t count on that success continuing in Detroit and it is a large part of why the Patriots were able to give up so many yards and still not give up points.
Finally, Matt Patricia’s defense ranked 8th in the NFL at preventing touchdowns in the red zone.
The combination of forcing poor starting field position, not allowing touchdowns in the red zone at a high rate, opponents being heavily penalized, and the other teams failing to convert field goal opportunities helped make Matt Patricia’s defense give up among the fewest points per drive.
How did last year’s red zone defense stack up against previous Matt Patricia led defenses?
Since Matt Patricia took over as defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, this is the most successful that he has been in the red zone.
In the years leading up to the Patriots’ success in the red zone last year, Patricia’s defense ranked 13th, 11th, 15th, and 12th in preventing red zone touchdowns. Last year appears to be an outlier there, but his defenses tend to be above average in this area. I think that expecting Patricia to come in and replicate his best season to date may be wishful thinking on our part.
Projecting Matt Patricia’s Detroit Lions Defense
So the 2017 Patriots didn’t successfully take away the big plays from the opposing offenses, and they didn’t generate turnovers at an exceptional rate. They were however tied for seventh in the NFL in sacks, probably more a credit to Matt Patricia than New England’s personnel, and they did manage to be successful at defending their end zone inside the 20 yard line.
The problem that I see when I look at all of this is that I don’t know how much of this is something that we should be expecting the Detroit Lions to replicate.
The consistently bad kicking against New England over the last decade is something that I would probably sooner contribute to the weather in an outdoor stadium than any sort of scheming that Matt Patricia is doing against the field goal unit.
While Matt Patricia has consistently led above average red zone defenses, last year was his most successful year, and we might not see that same level of success from him this year.
The Patriots did not succeed in taking away big plays last year.
Matt Patricia’s defense did not generate turnovers.
We probably shouldn’t expect the Detroit Lions to be the beneficiary of a league leading 1230 penalty yards in 2018.
With all of those things looking like they are going to be tough to replicate, the only thing that I see as an element of a successful bend-don’t-break defense is the ability to generate pressure on the quarterback.
We haven’t seen much in the way of pressure through two preseason games, but Matt Patricia hasn’t been running a real game script yet. After talking with Erik Schlitt who has spent a good deal of time studying Matt Patricia’s defense, I feel a lot more confident that Matt Patricia is going to find ways to scheme up pressure rather than simply relying on the talent along the defensive line.
If pressure is the only thing that we are taking from this, I’m not sure that any of this indicates that the Detroit Lions are going to be a bend-don’t-break defense in 2018. The Lions should improve in the red zone and their ability to rush the passer, but that probably isn’t enough to successfully fit the overall philosophy. I think that the style of the Patriots defense last year was largely based on the way that Matt Patricia schemed his personnel, and that may not be the same way that he schemes his new personnel.
Many have just assumed that the Lions defense would look very similar to the Patriots defense from last year statistically, but one of the primary draws to Matt Patricia as a head coach is his ability to adapt, move players around and change his scheme based on his personnel, the opponent and the given situation. None of those things are the same as they were in New England, so I’m not sure that we should be expecting the same results.