Although the offense has been the main contributor to the New England Patriots dynasty, they have had some good, and some not so good, defensive units throughout the years. This list will attempt to rank each of the Tom Brady-era defenses from worst to best.
EPA Rank: 30th
DVOA Rank: 31st
The first four weeks of the 2017 season were hard to watch. In historically bad fashion, the defense struggled mightily in trying to stop their opponents. They allowed 32 points per game, which is an immediate red flag. However, this does not fully encapsulate their struggles. They allowed 24.25 first downs per game in that stretch, which is five first downs above league average. Their expected points per game (higher is better) in that stretch was -16.65, in a season where the average defense has +5.5 EPA.
To be fair, the defense was not this bad the whole year. While they were not great, they managed to hold their own as the season went on, and the Patriots went 11-1 the rest of the way. After a solid performance vs the Tennessee Titans, however, the cracks started to show against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC championship game. Against a mediocre offense led by Blake Bortles, they struggled to get off the field for most of the game. Although they survived, it did not bode well for the Super Bowl. This is where they solidify their spot at the bottom of this list.
Super Bowl LII was not ideal for New England’s defense. Star cornerback Stephon Gilmore played very well, but the rest of the team failed to do anything. For whatever reason, Malcolm Butler was benched in favor of Eric Rowe. The Eagles consistently picked on him, and the Patriots trailed 22-12 at halftime. After Tom Brady hit Rob Gronkowski to give the Patriots a 33-32 lead early in the 4th, the defense had to make just one stop. They couldn’t. Eagles tight end Zach Ertz torched Devin McCourty on a slant and dove into the endzone for the game-winning score. This pathetic performance in the Super Bowl solidifies this 2017 defense’s spot at the bottom of this list.
EPA rank: 23rd
DVOA rank: 27th
After winning back to back Super Bowls, 2005 was a disappointing season for New England. The offense was just as good, but the defense struggled. Hall of Fame corner Ty Law was released in the off-season due to cap problems, which immediately caused issues in the secondary. Defensive stalwart Tedy Bruschi suffered a stroke earlier in the year and missed a good chunk of the season. Safety Rodney Harrison was lost for the season in Week 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the lack of secondary depth was problematic for the team the rest of the year. Their inconsequential 10-6 season was ended in the divisional round against the Denver Broncos, although the defense was not particularly bad in that loss.
EPA rank: 16th
DVOA rank: 30th
2011 was a fun season for the Patriots. It was the breakout campaign for Rob Gronkowski, and his talents combined with other great weapons led to a dynamic offensive season. Defense, however, was a different story. They kept opponents in games all year, even though the offense managed to hold on the majority of the time. Ultimately, this defense is lower than other statistically similar renditions due to the Super Bowl. Leading by two points late in the game, they allowed Eli Manning to engineer a drive culminating in a go-ahead touchdown, ultimately costing the Patriots a Super Bowl ring.
EPA rank: 24th
DVOA rank: 21st
The 2010 unit was an interesting one. They forced a lot of turnovers, their 38 takeaways ranking second in the NFL. However, they were highly flawed. Like many Patriots defenses, they had a very weak start to the year. In nine of their first 11 games, they had a negative (bad) EPA. Towards the end of the year, however, they strung together some very solid performances. Combined with a historic offense, the Patriots went 14-2 and looked to do serious damage in the playoffs. Unfortunately, Tom Brady struggled big time in the Divisional Round against an elite New York Jets defense. The defense did not help whatsoever, as they consistently failed to stop Mark Sanchez and the highly mediocre Jets offense. Receiver Braylon Edwards and Jericho Cotchery absolutely cooked the secondary to the tune of 148 yards on just 10 targets in the 28-21 defeat.
EPA rank: 20th
DVOA rank: 14th
Before 2019, the 2009 team might have been the most disappointing team in the Brady/Belichick era. They went “just” 10-6, after going 16-0 the last time Brady was healthy. The offense, although a bit inconsistent, was still great. They had the fourth-highest EPA that season and the single best DVOA due to a very tough schedule. On the other side of the ball, they were not quite there for a lot of the year. There was one particular moment in the 2009 season that was indicative of the defensive unit.
Up 34-28 against the Indianapolis Colts with two minutes to play, Belichick opted to go for it on fourth and 2 well in his own territory. The decision did not pay off, and Peyton Manning drove his team to the endzone with ease. There were many factors in this decision, but a big part of it must have been that Bill simply did not trust his defense. That narrative might have been a bit overstated, as they were playing against an incredible offense and it was the correct analytical decision, but it still had meaning. Belichick did not trust his defense. Naturally, the 2009 season would end with a whimper in a pathetic 33-14 thrashing at the hand of the Baltimore Ravens. The defense played poorly that day as well, but ultimately they lost that game because Tom Brady had the worst game of his career.
EPA Rank: 23rd
DVOA Rank: 14th
Without context, 2002 was probably the worst season of the Brady/Belichick era. The team went just 9-7, and narrowly missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker. At one point that season, Belichick was Mic’d up saying “I’m telling you, we suck. We ****-“. Relative to the usually customary Patriot dominance, they truly did suck. The offense was just 19th in EPA, and the defense was 23rd. Despite many of the defensive stalwarts of the 2001 championship returning, the unit just didn’t build off of their strong late-season run. Long time safety Lawyer Milloy would end up being cut before the next season.
EPA Rank: 20th
DVOA Rank: 20th
The 2013 defense was a talented but erratic unit. It boasted the likes of Dont’a Hightower, Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty, and Jamie Collins, but the unit never really got it together throughout the year. They had a solid start to the year, but they really struggled down the stretch. In their final eight games, they had a negative EPA in seven of them. The only exception was an absurd +24.64 EPA in a game against Baltimore, most of that coming on two defensive scores late in the 41-7 win. In the divisional round against the Colts, the young players on the defense came through in a big way. The next week did not bring the same results. Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense decimated the Patriots defense, resulting in a -23.4 EPA and a 26-16 defeat.
EPA Rank: 14th
DVOA Rank: 15th
The 2012 Patriots offense was historic. They scored 557 points, led the league in yards, and boasted by far the best DVOA and EPA that season. On the other side of the ball, the defense was trying to shake the stigma of a depressingly bad 2011 performance. At the end of the day, they weren’t too bad.
Defensive end Chandler Jones and the aforementioned Hightower were drafted in the first round, and they would later acquire Aqib Talib from the Buccaneers via trade. While the defense was strong down the stretch, they never quite reached their potential. A poor performance in the divisional round was covered up by a dominant offensive outing, but the same could not be said for the next week. Joe Flacco and the Ravens walked all over the defense in the second half, and Brady couldn’t bail them out in the humiliating 28-13 loss.
EPA rank: 18th
DVOA rank: 11th
Behind the best offense in NFL history, the 2007 defense did their part in orchestrating the NFL’s only 16-0 campaign to this date. The statistics might not be the most accurate depiction of the unit, however. Due to the insane offensive performance, the Patriots played from ahead for most of the year. As a result, teams were throwing the ball more than they usually would.
Throwing is better than running, so teams will have better efficiency when they air it out. Because of this, the Patriots had the best EPA against the pass but were just 18th overall due to not gaining a major statistical advantage in the run game. Unfortunately, things did not end well for the defense. After a decent performance in Super Bowl XLII, they failed to stop on the final drive. After the infamous helmet catch, Manning hit Plaxico Burress for the go-ahead score, ending the perfect season.