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The 'bend-but-don't-break' defense examined

Posted by Andrew Mooney  January 13, 2012 11:06 AM

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The Patriots’ defense has extended the “bend-but-don’t-break” concept to its limit. Their mighty struggles to prevent opposing offenses from cruising up and down the field are well-documented, yet somehow they retain an average ranking (14th) in the one defensive category that truly counts: scoring defense. The bend-but-don’t-break defense is one that’s been ascribed to Bill Belichick at various times over the years, but it’s not clear that it’s a sustainable strategy; after all, how could a defense that’s bad on 80 percent of the field perform consistently better in the last one-fifth?

Over at Smart Football, analysis conducted by Chase Stuart may have uncovered the reasons for this discrepancy. Interestingly, the bend-but-don't-break defense might be best explained by another familiar cliché: "the best defense is a good offense."

Because of a great offense and a good punting unit, the Patriots defense is rarely placed in a bad situation. New England rarely turns the ball over (third fewest in the league) and gains so many yards (2nd most) that they’re not giving the opponent the ball in a position to score. In fact, New England’s opponents have the 2nd worst average starting drive position of any team in the league (#1 is San Francisco, a team that seems to have been teleported straight from the ’70s) — the 24-yard-line.

The offense’s influence on the D’s effectiveness is not limited to the ground they chew up, but also, just as valuable, the time. Opposing offenses don’t score as much as might be expected against the Pats in part because, with less clock with which to work, they simply get the ball fewer times.

Because New England goes on many long drives on offense and allows long drives on defense, New England’s defense has faced the 6th fewest drives against this year (and the 4th fewest drives on offense). The Patriots have allowed 38 yards per drive (most in the league by over two yards) and 1.91 points per drive, 23rd best. Points per drive allowed excludes non-offensive touchdowns, so a 23rd-place ranking in points per drive allowed is a better measures of New England’s defense than their 14th-place ranking in points allowed.

I covered recently that a defense’s ability to force turnovers is essentially random, but this also implies that we would expect more to occur as the number of plays increases (larger sample size). And as the Patriots’ defense has faced the fourth-most passing attempts this year — due largely to Tom Brady’s ability to turn games into shootouts, while limiting his interceptions — it’s no surprise the unit ranks 2nd in the league in interceptions forced.

New England’s often playing with a lead, which forces their opponents into riskier tactics, which explains why the Pats are [3rd] in the league in turnovers forced despite not having much individual talent on defense. And, of course, every turnover forced is a drive that does not require any more defense, and the Patriots are 3rd in turnovers forced per drive.

But what about the most important aspect of the bend-but-don’t-break defense: the “don’t break,” or red zone defense? Is the Patriots’ ability to stop teams before reaching the end zone a product of purposeful defensive scheming or the difficult starting positions in which they place opposing offenses?

As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Patriots’ red zone efficiency on defense has remained remarkably consistent over the last five years; their percentage of touchdowns allowed per red zone trip has held relatively firm around 56 percent.

The regularity of this number leads me to believe their red zone efficiency is indeed the result of a repeatable defensive strategy. Play your safeties deep, and you won’t get burned deep, but you’ll allow a ton of yards — until the red zone, that is, when those safeties get forced up by the goal line and involve themselves in the play.

The only problem is that the Pats’ red zone defense is not particularly good, consistently well below the league average. In reality, the Patriots are no better at “not breaking” than the majority of NFL teams. If the defense can’t take all the credit, then, it’s fair to acknowledge the Pats’ offense for helping to keep the opposition off the scoreboard. Bad field position, limited possessions, and a victory in the turnover battle can all make a defense appear much stiffer than it really is.

Luckily, the Patriots will not be exposed by an elite offense this postseason unless they reach the Super Bowl; opposing quarterbacks in the AFC playoffs include two guys still learning the position (Tim Tebow and T.J. Yates) and the mighty Joe Flacco. But looming NFC foes look much more frightening. It may be at the hands of Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers that the Patriots’ bending limbo act on defense finally collapses upon itself.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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