— Bill Belichick isn't a coach who twiddles his thumbs while his defense gets torched.
The Steelers racked up 427 total yards in their 25-17 victory over the Patriots on Sunday. The game wasn't as close as the score: the Steelers settled for three short field goals and missed a fourth. They marched up and down the field and could have scored well over 30 with a more aggressive red-zone strategy.
A defensive guru like Belichick learns from bad games, makes adjustments and sends his defense onto the field hungrier and more prepared the following week. Research suggests that is exactly what happens most of the time. Belichick defenses usually bounce back from beatings, at least for a game or two. But once his defenses reach a certain ineptitude, there is little he can do.
Ghosts of '05 and '09: For this exercise, we define a “bad defensive game” as a game in which the Patriots a) lose and b) allow 400 or more yards. We don’t include games the Patriots won, because the opponent get 400 yards while playing catch up. A 400-yard defensive game is not always bad (an opponent can gain 400 but turn the ball over five times), but these are Belichick defenses, so the standard is set pretty high.
We also start our study in 2005 and do not plow through ancient history of the Super Bowl victory years. Those defenses rarely had bad games. These are the modern Patriots, not the team that had Rodney Harrison, Ty Law, Ted Bruschi and others in their primes.
The Patriots have had 15 bad defensive games since the beginning of the 2005 season, counting Sunday. They are 12-2 the following week. They lost their bad defensive games by an average score of 31-19. They won the following week by an average score of 28-14, including 41-7 and 59-0 victories.
That’s the good news.
Here’s the bad news: when the Patriots have several bad defensive games within a few weeks of each other, like they have had this year, they get stuck in an on-again, off-again rut. The defense mixes poor performances with OK performances while the offense masks the bigger problems. Often, the final team-wide collapse happens at the worst time: in the playoffs.
Take the Good With the Bad: The Patriots finished 10-6 in 2005, but their defense was not good. They finished 17th in the league in points allowed and 25th in yards allowed. They had four bad defensive games in October and November. They lost 41-17 to the Chargers, allowing 431 total yards. They lost 28-20 to the Broncos, allowing 432 yards. The Colts racked up 453 yards in a 40-17 win. The Chiefs gained 420 yards in a 26-16 win.
The Patriots answered each loss with a victory, but most of those wins were not defensive gems. Typical of the in-between games was a 21-16 victory over the Dolphins. Gus Frerotte threw for 360 yards in that game. The Patriots' defense recorded one interception and zero sacks. The Dolphins actually led in the fourth quarter, and Tom Brady had to execute a comeback. It was a prime example of the Patriots offense covering for its defense.
Later in 2005, the Patriots did go through a three-game stretch when they outscored opponents 79-10, though it helped to be facing quarterbacks like J.P. Losman, Brooks Bollinger, and Chris Simms. The Patriots' defense wasn't good that year, and no amount of Belichick scheming could change that. Ty Law was gone, Rodney Harrison missed most of the season, and veteran fill-ins like Duane Starks played terribly in the secondary while cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs played like talented but inexperienced youngsters. If that profile sounds familiar, replace Starks with “Leigh Bodden:” it sounds like we are talking about this year’s Patriots. When the 2005 playoffs arrived, the offense fell flat, and the Broncos beat the Patriots 27-13.
The Patriots also had a run of bad defensive games in 2009, the year Brady was injured. The Broncos beat them 23-20, generating 424 yards of offense. The Patriots answered by clobbering the Titans 59-0, but a few weeks later the defensive woes returned. The Patriots endured three bad defensive games in four weeks, losing to the Colts, Saints, and Dolphins by a combined 95-72 score. It was the first time in years that the Patriots experienced back-to-back bad defensive games (by our definition), and the problem returned in Week 17, when the Texans beat them 34-27. The Patriots went on to lose to the Ravens in the first round of the playoffs, and while the Ravens gained just 268 total yards, 234 of them were rushing yards.
Once is a Coincidence, Twice is a Habit: Sometimes, a Patriots' stinker is an anomaly. In the famous Wildcat game of 2008, the Dolphins shocked the Patriots with a brand new offense, carving out 461 rushing yards and a 38-14 win while the Patriots tried to figure out why Ronnie Brown was playing quarterback. The Browns played a similar trick last year, trotting out every gadget they could think of score 34 points. The Patriots' defense settled down after both games, and it’s not like opponents can unveil a whole new offensive concept every time they face Belichick.
But when bad defensive games come in bunches, it is a sign that there won't be easy answers. That is why Sunday’s loss should set off alarms. The Patriots had a bad defensive game in Week 3, with the Bills gaining 448 yards in a 34-31 win. The Patriots beat the Raiders 31-19 the following week, but they allowed a whopping 504 yards to a Jason Campbell-led offense. It was shades of 2005 and 2009: a string of awful defensive performances, with the offense sometimes riding to the rescue.
Despite that 12-2 record after bad defensive games, history suggests the long-term prognosis isn't good. This team was a preseason favorite to win the Super Bowl, so an 11-5 record and a playoff loss won’t cut it. The Patriots might rebound against the Giants and their injury-riddled offense Sunday. But what about the Jets in two weeks? The Eagles in a month? What about the Bills, who like the Jets may be nipping at their heels in the AFC East race?