When you think of teams that excel in taking the ball away on defense in the NFL teams like the Chicago Bears, Houston Texans, and San Francisco 49ers come to mind. One team that doesn’t immediately come to mind is the New England Patriots. But this year the Patriots quietly lead the AFC in interceptions and lead the NFL in fumble recoveries. This has been a surprising key to their success this season.
The Patriots have by no means had the league’s top defense. While their run defense has been strong for the majority of the year, their pass defense has been suspect to say the least. Multiple games have come down to the defense being asked to make one final stop which they have been unable to do. But the Patriots have been able to make up for a weak passing defense by forcing an amazing amount of turnovers.
The Patriots currently have 14 interceptions. That ranks them first in the AFC and fourth in the NFL tied with Washington and Arizona. The only three teams better than the Patriots in that category are Chicago, New York Giants, and Tampa Bay. The team also ranks first in the NFL in fumble recoveries this season falling on an astounding 18. That’s seven more than Chicago who has been the team known for forcing fumbles this season. Overall the Patriots have 32 takeaways which lead the league.
The Patriots have now taken the ball away from the opposing offense in each of their 11 games this season. They’ve forced at least three turnovers in five games this season including five last week against the New York Jets and six in week four over the Buffalo Bills. They currently rank second in takeaways per game with 2.9 just behind Chicago who averages three per game.
Despite the defense’s inability to stop opposing offenses at times this season, multiple games have come down to the Patriots ability to create turnovers in key situations. Two of those games were in week seven against the Jets and week ten against the Bills. Against the Jets the Patriots blew a ten point lead in the fourth quarter having to kick a last minute field goal to send the game into overtime. The Jets were driving with an opportunity to win when defensive end Rob Ninkovich stripped Mark Sanchez ending the game.
The Patriots were in a similar situation against the Bills in week ten. With the Bills driving attempting to take the lead in the fourth quarter, safety Steve Gregory stripped Bills running back Fred Jackson at the Patriots one yard line. The ball was recovered by cornerback Kyle Arrington and the Patriots retained the lead. With a six point deficit, the Bills had another opportunity as they drove down the field with under a minute left in the game. They had gotten inside the Patriots red zone when safety Devin McCourty picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick in the end zone sealing the Patriots victory.
The ability to create takeaways is something that the Patriots defense has had all season but they may even be better at it now. Newly acquired cornerback Aqib Talib is one of the better defensive backs in the league at intercepting the ball. Arrington on the other side has gotten better at that too. Moving McCourty from cornerback to safety puts one more player that has that skill on the field which will put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks to be more accurate causing them to make mistakes and forcing more turnovers.
The Patriots defense isn’t known for creating takeaways but this year that’s exactly what they’ve done. With an inability to stop the opponent’s passing attack for much of the year, these turnovers have turned into victories. The Patriots offense has been the best in the league this year so the defense has only needed a few stops each game to win. While stopping the opposition conventionally has been troublesome, these takeaways have done the job. If they can keep up this pace they’ll be a hard team to beat for the remainder of the season.