2012 Patriots Defensive Analysis

Game 1: @ Titans

The Patriots defense started with a bang, holding Chris Johnson to 11 yards on 4 carries. The personnel and packages were the most straight forward we’ve seen in years, sticking with the lighter 4-3 as a base.






Dowling in on outside, Arrington to slot. Hightower/Spikes split who comes off.


Cunningham in as interior rusher. Wilson in at Money.

Snap Count

Sub: 42 of 65 
Base: 21 of 65 
Short-yardage: 2 of 65

3rd Down: 5/14 = 36%

Red Zone 0/2

Game 2: vs. Cardinals

The defense was generally solid, but put in bad positions by turnovers. The personnel and packages were roughly the same as the week before, with the only significant change being Sterling Moore taking over as the nickel back for Ras-I Dowling.

Snap Counts

Sub: 30 of 64 
Base: 29 of 64 
Short-yardage: 5 of 64

3rd Down: 4/14 = 29%

Red Zone: 2/2

Game 3: @ Ravens

The Patriots defense reverted back to 2010/2011 form and were shredded on the ground and in the air. By the official NFL game books they didn’t record a sack nor QB hit. Their personnel and packages remained identical to last week, with only Tavon Wilson no longer getting any base safety play and being used only at Money.

Snap Counts

Base: 37 of 73 
Sub: 36 of 73 
Short-yardage: 0 of 73

Third Down: 4/8 = 50%

Red Zone 2/3 = 67%

Game 4 @ Bills

No major changes to the line-up in this one, though Dont’a Hightower left with hamstring issues and didn’t return, pushing Tracy White into some time in the sub-defense. The play of the outside corners was excellent, but the Pats were torched down the middle on a couple occasions. Both Chung and Gregory had issues, and based on Tavon Wilson’s solid play we might be seeing more of him in there in the coming weeks. Vince Wilfork was a beast, and Brandon Spikes forced two fumbles. This was a 2010-esque performance, they gave up a lot of yards through the air, but were solid against the run and forced a ton of turnovers. The pass defense, especially down the seam and deep, remains a question mark. Their ability to stop the run in sub is a credit to the front seven and one of the biggest keys to the win. The biggest thing is just inconsistency, as illustrated by the drive chart below.

Snap Counts

Sub: 58 of 71 
Base: 13 of 71 
Short-yardage: 0 of 71

Third Down: 8/15 = 53%

Red Zone: 0/1 = 0%

Game 5: Broncos

With starters Dont’a Hightower and Steve Gregory out the Pats had to do some juggling with their personnel. They stuck to sub-packages primarily but Tavon Wilson and Tracy White were the guys to step into the base.

In the nickel Sterling Moore came on as usual, but it was Ras-I Dowling coming on at the Money position in the dime. Alfonzo Dennard saw his first action of the season in replacement of Moore for some extended snaps and actually looked pretty good. We’ll see if he earned more playing time.

Overall the same problems continued, they gave up 6 plays of 20+ yards, and Devin McCourty’s inconsistency reared it’s head again. He might’ve been benched for a series as well, though that isn’t clear.

Ninkovich was a beast, and is really starting to elevate his play. As has become the case with the defense it wasn’t pretty but they forced turnovers and made just enough plays to get the win. We didn’t learn anything new.

Snap Count

Sub: 60 of 66 
Base: 5 of 66 
Short-yardage: 1 of 66

Third Down: 7/13 = 54%

Red Zone: 3/4 = 75%

Game 6 @ Seahawks

With Dont’a Hightower and Steve Gregory out the Pats slid Ninkovich to SLB and Cunningham to LDE, while Tavon Wilson got his second start at safety. The results were the same, 6 big plays given up, including the game winning 46-yard touchdown pass. Right now I’d grade the pressure up front as average and the coverage on the back end well below average. Teams will continue to throw deep early and often until they prove they can stop it.

It seems if the Patriots can just cut down to 3 big plays per game, from the 5.5 they’re averaging, it should really translate into wins. On paper it seems like a simple fix, but obviously it’s not that simple because they’ve been trying to solve this problem for the last two years. They need Gregory back, he wasn’t great before injury but they gave up fewer deep balls when he was in there.

Snap Count

Base: 40 of 56 
Sub: 16 of 56 
Short-yardage: 0 of 56

Third Down: 4/12 = 33%

Red Zone: 2/3 = 66%

Game 7: Jets

With Chung and Gregory out Devin McCourty was moved back to safety, with Dennard and Arrington starting on the outside. Ras-I saw some time at Money and on the outside. He had a good pass breakup on a third down, but he also had two penalties and finished the day sidelined with an injury. Justin Francis saw some action for the first time.

Overall it was another standard performance by the 2012 Pats defense. Solid against the run, can’t stop anything through the air. Especially frustrating were the number of third and longs given up, they got off the field just 50% of the time on those.

The defense also continued right on their average pace giving up 6 20+ passing plays. If the 2012 Pats could ever just lock down the back end who knows how good they could be. They continue to live or die off of turnovers, and that was what saved them this week yet again.

Snap Count

Base: 50 of 84 
Sub: 32 of 84 
Short-yardage: 2 of 84

Third Down: 8/15 = 53%

Red Zone: 2/4 = 50%

Game 8 @ Rams (in London)

With Chung/Gregory out again, and Kyle Arrington leaving early with a head injury the Patriots elevated Sterling Moore as the starter on the right side, Dennard on the left, and Cole at star.

Perhaps the best thing about this game was the Patriots using more blitzing. They tried some double A gap and double edge blitzes and it really seemed to help the secondary out. Hopefully they’ll continue to use a variety of blitzes going forward and be a little less conservative. We also saw Justin Francis as part of a four-DE package. The effort to ramp up the pass rush is apparent.

Now heading into the bye week they will hope to get Chung/Gregory back. Perhaps Marquice Cole should get more of a look at star. The lack of Arrington did not seem to hurt.

Snap Count

Base: 39 of 63 
Sub: 24 of 63 
Short-yardage: 0 of 63

Third Down: 3/10 = 30%

Red Zone: 0/1 = 0%

Game 9 vs. Buffalo Bills

In what was the ugliest defensive effort in recent memory the Patriots were shredded by the Bills but came up with a forced fumble and interception from Devin McCourty late in the fourth quarter to seal a 37-31 win.

We’re starting to see more of Justin Francis, spelling Chandler Jones on the third series of both halves. Jermaine Cunningham showed some flash at interior pass rusher but there weren’t a lot of positives. Steve Gregory returned and McCourty and he manned the back end. The long passes were minimized but they stunk everywhere else.

Dennard and Arrington manned the outside corner spots, Wilson was back at Money and Marquice Cole was at star.

Snap Count

Sub: 62 of 81 
Base: 17 of 81 
Short-yardage: 2 of 81

Third Down: 7/11 = 64%

Red Zone: 4/7 = 57%

Game 10 vs. Indianapolis Colts

With Aqib Talib seeing his first action, Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory were the starting safeties. Patrick Chung sat out again, and likely feels that he’s healthy enough to play but the Patriots are holding him back.

Kyle Arrington started opposite Talib but gave up a 40-yard pass interference that put the Colts in position to score a touchdown on their opening drive. He was pulled for Dennard, but stayed at slot until he was pulled there for Cole. He could be on his way out.

Ninkovich once again made forced and recovered a fumble, as the defensive front seven were solid. Chandler Jones injured his ankle and could miss some time.  Some inconsistency remains but once they settled down they looked at least average for the rest of the game. At this point I’ll take average.

Snap Count

Sub: 54 of 78 
Base: 22 of 78 
Short-yardage: 2 of 78 

Third Down: 8-14

Red Zone: 2-2

Game 11: @ New York Jets

Fueled off of four first half turnovers from the Jets the Patriots defense turned in one of their best efforts of the season on Thanksgiving. Chandler Jones missed this one, and Jermaine Cunningham was elevated to starting defensive end.

The Patriots are starting to sprinkle in a little more 3-4 looks, but remain committed to a double nose style for a great majority of their base which blurs the lines between base and sub somewhat.

Brandon Deaderick started to see a bit more playing time, and with the majority of the defensive backs now healthy they’ve been able to move some pieces around to get a little more creative.

Here’s Greg Bedard’s breakdown from this game:

There was the normal nickel package (41.5 percent before the final two Jet drives), with cornerback Kyle Arrington taking the place of a linebacker, either Dont’a Hightower or Brandon Spikes, and playing the “star” slot corner position. Chung was inserted as the fifth defensive back in a “big nickel” used to combat tight end Dustin Keller (16.9 percent). That’s the first time the Patriots have showed that this season. The dime package featuring Arrington and safety Tavon Wilson in place of Hightower and Spikes was used for just one snap against the Jets, although it had been featured before the injuries at safety.

The goalline stand in the third quarter is something for this defense to hang their hat on. They’re forcing fumbles at a record rate, and it shows the physical personality that this defense is bringing every week.

Snap Count

Sub: 49 of 72 
Base: 22 of 72 
Short-yardage: 1 of 72 

Third Down: 3-10

Red Zone: 2-4

Game 12 @ Miami Dolphins

The Patriots clinched their 9th division title in 10 years with one of their strongest defensive performances to date.

Trevor Scott stepped in and delivered two sacks. Jake Bequette took suspended Jermaine Cunningham’s interior sub rush spot and was ineffective. The secondary continues to be McCourty and Gregory, Talib and Dennard with Arrington coming on at star. Brandon Deaderick is starting to get more time next to Vince Wilfork in the base defense than Kyle Love.

Miami’s offense is not elite but the Patriots looked fast and on the same page most of the day. It appears that they are finally able to use their outside corners more in man coverage and the benefits are starting to appear.

Snap Count

Sub: 36 of 63 
Base: 27 of 63 
Short-yardage: 0 of 63 

Third Down: 3-13 = 23%

Red Zone: 1-2

Game 13: Houston Texans

The Patriots defense put together arguably their best game in three seasons given the quality of the opponent and dominant performance. What’s really starting to show up is Jerod Mayo’s skill attacking the quarterback as he was in Matt Schaub’s face all night.

Vince Wilfork was dominant and really set the tone. The Patriots ability to stop Arian Foster on early downs was the key. Talib and Dennard are playing more and more man to man defense and McCourty and Gregory are really settling the back end.

The Patriots defense looked fast and aggressive. If they play like this in the playoffs they will be a very tough out for anyone they face.

Snap Count

Sub: 36 of 63 
Base: 27 of 63 
Short-yardage: 0 of 63 

Third Down: 4-14 = 28.6%

Red Zone: 2-2 = 100%

Game 14 San Francisco 49ers

It was one of the craziest games of recent memory with the Pats going down 31-3 before storming back to tie it at 31, only to lose 41-34. The defense in this game is impossible to figure out. There was some good, some bad, some great and some horrid.

Interesting personnel notes: Chandler Jones was ineffective and replaced for most of the second half by Justin Francis who really looks to be coming on. Steve Gregory also took a seat for Patrick Chung.

The Pats played almost entirely base defense but just couldn’t get that one more stop that they needed. For the third week in a row they did not win the turnover battle (2-4) and this time it cost them. They also gave up four 20+ touchdowns, regressing to their problems earlier this season. They had a good stretch when the offense was making the comeback, but as soon as they tied it back up the defense folded in one play to allow the go ahead and eventual winning touchdown.

Snap Count

Base: 51 of 67 
Sub: 11 of 67 
Short-yardage: 5 of 67 

Third Down: 5-14 = 35.7%

Red Zone: 1-4 = 25%

Game 15: @Jaguars

Without Dennard and Talib limited the Patriots moved McCourty back to cornerback. Justin Francis and Brandon Deaderick continue to ascend. Kyle Love has dropped off a bit. Tracy White saw extensive time as well.

It was ugly early for the Pats D but they locked it down against an inferior opponent. Chad Henne helped the Pats out a bit.

Patrick Chung had two interceptions, he’s going to need a big playoffs but it was nice to see him make a big play. It’s been a tough season for him.

Snap Count

Sub: 63 of 80 
Base: 15 of 80 
Short-yardage: 2 of 80 

3rd Down: 4-15 = 26.7%

Red Zone: 1-4

Game 16 vs. Dolphins

The Patriots ended the season with their best performance of the year, a shutout. This great article from Greg Bedard really breaks down the year’s progression.

I’m not sure why it always has to be this hard, but by the end of the year they look ready to compete.

Snap Count

Sub: 51 of 59 
Base: 7 of 59 
Short-yardage: 1 of 59 

3rd Down: 5-13

Red Zone: 0-1


Stat check: Season review - New England Patriots Blog - ESPN Boston
  • Points against Final rank: Tied 9th (20.7) 
  • Total defense
    Final rank: 25th (373.3 yards per game)
  • Rushing defense
    Final rank: 9th (101.9 yards per game) 
  • Passing defense Final rank: 29th (271.4 yards per game) 
  • Third-down defense Final rank: Tied 25th (82 of 205, 40.0 percent) 
  • Turnover differential Final rank: 1st (Plus-25 — 41 takeaways, 16 giveaways) 
  • Red-zone defense (based on TD percentage) Final rank: 13th (24 of 46, 52.2 percent)

AFC Divisional Game: Patriots 41, Texans 28

The great thing about the playoffs? There’s no more messing around or trying stuff out. This is the truth of who they like and trust on defense.

The base defense was as expected. Arrington was at star, Wilson at Money. Justin Francis was the interior rush specialist, but also the replacement DE once Chandler Jones went down. Francis’ ascension has been an interesting development late this year.

The biggest plus was that the Patriots are finally comfortable playing man to man defense and that really helped them. The pressure could’ve been better but the coverage was excellent for most of the game.

This was a solid playoff performance for this defense and one that should give them confidence. They haven’t looked this capable since 2007 and even then it was mostly on veteran savvy. Now it’s youth and speed and versatility. They still have their weaknesses but they are better prepared to face Joe Flacco in the AFC Championship than they were earlier this season or even in last year’s AFCCG.

Snap Count


3rd Down: 4-15

Red Zone: 2-3

AFC Championship: Ravens 28, Patriots 13

Snap Count


Third Down: 5-12: 42%

Red Zone: 4-4 = 100%

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