The Patriots and Packers Do Not Have Terrible Defenses
Listening to the media and reading sports messageboards, you might get the impression that the 2011 Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots have historically awful defenses. A common claim is that neither team can win the Super Bowl unless their “offense is perfect” because their defenses are so appallingly bad. Fortunately for Packers and Patriots fans, the claim that these teams’ defenses are terrible is completely bogus.
If you checked out my 2011 Defensive Efficiency Rankings, you probably noticed that the Packers rank 8th and the Patriots 13th. That seems so far beyond the media narrative that one would be quick to dismiss my rankings as inaccurate or flawed. But taking a quick look at the numbers, it’s easy to see why these teams’ defenses score pretty well.
The big reason why my rankings are out of whack with the common perception of these teams’ defenses is that I don’t have much use for yards allowed. The Patriots and Packers are 32nd and 31st in the league in yards allowed. By this measure, both teams are horrific. The Patriots are allowing roughly 41.4 Yards Per Drive, the Packers 39.8 Just how bad are those numbers? Only 3 teams since 1970 really compare: The 2008 Denver Broncos (41.05 YPD), 2008 Detroit Lions (39.45) and the 2008 Kansas City Chiefs (39.07). The Patriots are on track to give up more YPD than any team in post-merger history, and the Packers aren’t faring too much better. The Houston Texans lead the league in YPD allowed giving up an impressive (by 2011 standards) 26.3 YPD.
That said, neither team gives up tons of points per game. In fact, both are about league average. In terms of defensive points allowed (this excludes points given up on special teams and offense) through 14 games, the Patriots have given up 287 (20.5 PPG), the Packers 291 (20.8) . League average is 292 (20.9). Since preventing points is the primary goal of a defense, the least we can say about these teams is that they are “about league average” defensively. Saying these teams are the worst in the league implies that one would prefer a team which gives up fewer yards, but more points (since those defenses would be “better”). For example, the Denver Broncos allow 31.4 YPD – a little better than league average, and significantly better than either Green Bay or New England. But they allow 22.6 points per game – 6th worst in the league.
So both teams are pretty average in the most important measure of defense – points allowed. However, both teams excel at creating takeaways. The Packers are tied with the 49ers for best in the league (forcing a turnover on 22.9% of their opponents drives) and the Patriots are 3rd in the league (20.0%). League average is 14.9%. Both teams are significantly better than league average in takeaways.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are thought to have an excellent defense – it’s 4th best in the league in yards allowed. But they only allow about one fewer point per game than the Patriots and Packers (19.6 PPG). However, the Jaguars don’t force nearly as many turnovers – on only 13.8% of their opponents drives. Furthermore, they allow points more easily – their YPP allowed is 15.6 compared to the Patriots’ 20.2 and the Packers’ 19.1.
The name of the game on defense is to prevent points and create turnovers (which can lead to points, either directly or indirectly). The Jaguars are a little better than Patriots/Packers at the former, but much worse at the latter. Which defense would you prefer? It’s not as easy of a choice as you might have thought.