Is the New England Patriots' Defense Fixed After Thursday Night's Game?

The New England Patriots held the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to 14 points on Thursday night. Does that mean their defensive woes are a thing of the past?

Through the first four games, the New England Patriots' defense was getting just shredded. They turned Alex Smith into a deep-ball savant, morphed the consensus on Deshaun Watson in just his second career start, and resurrected a previously-flailing Cam Newton. Seems a bit grim.

Thursday night was radically different. In a game with an over/under of 54.5, they held the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to just 14 points, seven of which came late in the game when the Buccaneers were scraping to make up ground. Jameis Winston threw only one touchdown, allowing the Patriots to get back above .500.

That's certainly a positive. Opponents were averaging 32 points per game against them, so holding a solid offense to two scores can't be a bad thing. But does it mean that they've officially turned the corner defensively?

Let's take a deeper look at this with numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. NEP gives us context to each play, showing the immense difference between a three-yard completion and 3rd and 2 and that same completion on 3rd and 4.

Is the Patriots' defense no longer a concern? Or was last night a potential fluke?

A Mixed Bag

On its face, Winston's night was not that great. Sure, he threw for 334 yards, but it took him 46 attempts to get there, and he completed just 26 of those passes.

But once you dig a bit deeper, you see that it was a lot better than it appeared. Winston finished the night with 9.99 Passing NEP, or 0.21 Passing NEP per drop back. For some additional context on those, here's how Winston's game last night compares to the league averages entering Week 5. Success Rate is the percentage of drop backs that increase the team's expected points for the drive.

In 2017 Passing NEP per Drop Back Success Rate
Winston in Week 5 0.21 47.92%
League Average 0.08 45.88%

Even with mediocre surface-level stats, Winston still easily exceeded the league average in both categories. That's a mark against the Patriots' defense suddenly being fixed.

What's even more intriguing about Winston's night is that it could have been even bigger. Winston threw 16 balls at least 16 yards downfield, and he connected on just six of those. Part of the credit there has to go to the Patriots, who limited a vertical offense that has both DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans. But there was something else happening that could limit the role the Patriots' defense played in this department.

Earlier in the day, wind speeds in Tampa Bay were projected at 17 miles per hour, a mark that would obviously put a dent in the viability of a downfield attack. They decreased to nine miles per hour at kickoff, but they had climbed back up to 13 miles per hour by the end of the game. That could partially explain Winston's struggles deep.

Possibly backing up this theory, Tom Brady threw just six deep passes Thursday night, and one of them was intercepted. That means just 6 of his 40 attempts (15%) were at least 16 yards downfield in Week 5. Through the first four games, a whopping 26.45% of his throws were deep, the third-highest mark in the league. If Brady was hesitant to throw deep against a defense that was missing two of its starting safeties, that's probably an indication that conditions were less than ideal for long throws.

If Winston had hit on more of his deep attempts (he had completed 52.00% of his deep throws entering the week), then his numbers would have looked a lot rosier. Again, we can't completely discredit the Patriots' defense here, but there are also reasons to believe the wind played a factor.

The other pain point early on in the season for the Patriots has been their pass rush, an issue that dates back to last year. Entering the night, their opponents had lost just 10.57 expected points due to sacks on the year, the fourth-lowest mark in the league. Thursday wasn't much better as they sacked Winston on 2 of his 48 drop backs, lowering their full-season sack rate to 4.76%.

Moving Forward

If the Patriots' pass-rushing woes and issues with the deep ball aren't definitively fixed, can we say that their defense as a whole is? That would seem to be a hard "no." But that doesn't mean it's all doom and gloom.

First, the Patriots now get a long layoff between games thanks to the Thursday contest. That gives them time to rest up and fix any communication issues they've had with all the new personnel in the secondary.

Second, their next opponent is the New York Jets. If your secondary needs a get-right spot, a date with Josh McCown isn't going to hurt matters.

Third, the deeper we get into the season, the more comfortable new guys like Stephon Gilmore should become with the system. Having a long layoff followed by an easier matchup gives them the ability to iron out any issues and get things trending in the right direction.

Week 7 will be the big indicator of where this defense truly sits. There, they'll get a Super Bowl rematch against the Atlanta Falcons in Foxboro on Sunday Night Football. If any team has the ability to expose flaws against the pass, it's this one.

The Patriots do have a buffer before that big test, but the deeper stats on Thursday's game show they still have plenty of work to do. If they can't right the ship by Week 7, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones could go bonkers. The Falcons also have a bye in Week 5 to get their assets healthy.

Right now, it seems as if this pass defense is still going to be an issue for the reigning champs. But they've got time to figure things out. While the sense of urgency needs to be high with the Falcons lurking, the next two weeks will go a long way toward telling us whether or not this team has the ability to repeat.