Can Patriots’ defense carry the team without Tom Brady?
Barring any surprises and further appeals in the quarterback’s legal proceedings, the New England Patriots will be playing their first four games of 2016 without quarterback Tom Brady. Any team losing a key starting player would be at a disadvantage; a Super Bowl contender losing a Hall of Fame quarterback still playing at a high level could become a huge detriment.
The obvious question for the Patriots heading into 2016, then, is how the team’s playoff hopes can weather the loss of Brady. Will the defense be good enough to carry the team in Brady’s absence?
The Patriots quietly had one of the highest-graded defenses in the NFL last season. Only the Broncos had a higher overall grade, and New England was strong in all three areas: No. 2 in coverage, No. 4 in run defense and No. 12 in pass-rush grade. They had several individual standouts as well, including three players who ranked in the bottom half of PFF’s Top 101 player ranking for 2015: LB Dont’a Hightower (No. 63), S Patrick Chung (62) and DE Jabaal Sheard (59).
Sheard is likely the most critical player of those three, as the team’s best pass-rusher. The Patriots lost considerable pass-rush production from their 2015 roster, with the departures of Chandler Jones’ 13 sacks, eight hits, 41 hurries, Akiem Hicks’ three sacks, four hits, 11 hurries and Dominique Easley’s three sacks, eight hits, and 24 hurries. The Patriots did add Chris Long’s four sacks and 14 hurries and Shea McClellin’s two hits and 12 hurries.
The net loss of pass-rush production will have to be made up for by other players already on the roster if the Patriots’ defense hopes to maintain their level of play. Jabaal Sheard will likely be the player the Patriots will rely on the most. Sheard was the Patriots’ most effective pass-rusher on a per-snap basis last season, with a pass-rush productivity score of 14.1, No. 1 in the NFL among 4-3 defensive ends. He generated 58 total pressures, included eight sacks.
The Patriots have a favorable first-four schedule, although the team’s toughest matchup comes first. The team opens on the road against the Arizona Cardinals, who have a highly productive offense that includes PFF’s highest-graded quarterback last season, Carson Palmer. If there’s a positive for New England in this matchup, it’s the fact that a loss against a non-conference opponent wouldn’t be as severe as a loss to an AFC team.
The Patriots then have three straight home games, playing the Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills in a row. The Dolphins added considerable weapons around quarterback Ryan Tannehill, including a pair of rookies in running back Kenyan Drake and wide receiver Leonte Carroo, and will institute a new offense from coordinator Clyde Christensen. It’s asking a lot to get an offense with that many moving parts firing on all cylinders by Week 2, so facing an unsure Tannehill that early in the season could give the Patriots’ defense the advantage.
It’s the same situation for the Texans, who will be integrating a host of new pieces into their offense in the season’s early going as well. The Texans’ starting quarterback Brock Osweiler will only be starting his third game for his new team and coach, to say nothing of the team’s new running back (free-agent signee Lamar Miller) and rookie wide receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller. The Patriots could again luck into an offense at less than full strength, potentially boding well for the defense’s chances.
The Bills’ offense had some success early in the 2015 season against the Patriots’ defense, putting up 32 points in their first matchup in Week 2. The Bills didn’t experience the same type of success the next time they played the Patriots, only managing 13 points in Week 11. The Bills lost both games. Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor has shown he can make plays against the Patriots defense, but unless he can improve dramatically on the team’s showing the second time around last season, the advantage lies with the Patriots’ defense in this matchup as well.
Losing a divisional game has a large negative impact on a team’s playoff forecasts, so the AFC East matchups against Miami and Buffalo will carry extra weight for all parties involved. Both the Dolphins and Bills will be looking at their respective games against the Brady-less Patriots as a chance to get a head start in the division race and come away with a win on the road in Foxboro. Last season, Sheard had positive pass rush performances both times he played the Bills, including nine hurries and one hit. He also had a positive pass-rush grade, one hit and five hurries in his game against the Dolphins.
The Patriots’ ability to survive the Brady suspension will hinge primarily on who they get their pass rush production from and how they fare against their two divisional opponents. If Sheard continues his per-snap production level with an increase in snaps, he will be as important to the Patriots surviving the Brady suspension as Jimmy Garoppolo.