Curran: Inability to create turnovers indicates multi-layer issue for Patriots


So get this: Through nine games, the Patriots defense has recovered two fumbles by their opponents.

TWO! Both came in the midst of their rout of the Dolphins (which ended up morphing into not-a-rout) all the way back in Week 2. That’s seven games without a defensive fumble recovery.

As a team, they’ve recovered four. The other two came during the Week 3 hammering of Houston and both came on kickoffs.

The two defensive fumble recoveries is an arresting number which, when coupled with the meager total of five interceptions, serves as concrete evidence of what your eyes have been telling you: Defensively, the Patriots don’t make other teams uncomfortable.

[To see these numbers in context of seasons past, click here.]

They generally don’t speed up opposing quarterbacks and force them into miscues. There’s so much room for activities when receivers pull in throws against the Patriots frequent zone coverages. Two guys who created lots of havoc -- Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins -- got shipped out of town and another one who was a penetrating interior playmaker -- Dominique Easley -- got released. Rob Ninkovich, who’s annually shown a knack for creating turnovers, is just rounding into form after a suspension and triceps injury.

Suggestion by us laymen that the Patriots scheme is to basically lay there like a sack of potatoes and wait for the opposing offense to crap out get met with sometimes met with snorts of derision by X's and O's wonks.

Maybe we don’t know what we don’t know. But we damn sure know enough to say that the lack of sacks, fumbles and picks and the fact they are 22nd in the league in third-down conversions isn’t just a spate of bad luck.

And this is where the “chicken-egg” conversation begins.

Is it the scheme or the lack of personnel available to run a more aggressive scheme?  Is it the work of the defensive coordinator and coaches? Or is it personnel decisions made that left them without guys who create sacks, force fumbles and come up with picks? Is it that guys like Easley and Collins weren’t with the program, or were they either not suited for the program when they were hired or made jaded to the program over time? And are the decisions to move on or not pay playmakers prior to the season -- or during, in Collins’ case -- informed by the business side of the equation to the detriment of the on-field product?

Like those little Russian nesting dolls -- open up the first layer and there’s another question staring at you with a spooky, vacant stare.

Speaking of which, we asked defensive coordinator Matt Patricia about the lack of chaos being caused on his Tuesday conference call.

When I asked if it was the scheme, he replied, “I don’t know if I’d really go with the scheme part of it as much as just, you know, there are definitely opportunities in the game where those turnover opportunities come up whether the ball is out, in the air, or whatever the particular case may be. We just have to make sure we come up with those opportunities. I think you’ve got to give credit to certainly the teams we’ve played. I don’t think you can go as many years in a row as we’ve gone with high turnover numbers and have an opponent look at you and say, ‘We’ve got to do a really good job of protecting the ball.’ Some of that goes to the opponents that we’re playing and those guys are doing a great job of protecting the ball and making sure that they don’t turn it over and give us those opportunities, or try to limit those opportunities that come up in the game.”

Boiling down that 160-word answer? Offenses are being more conservative against the Patriots when it comes to risk-taking.

Continuing, Patricia said, “Certainly there have been some opportunities in the game that we’ve got to do a better job of taking advantage of. A lot of that is, sometimes it’s focus, concentration or whatever the case may be. We’ve got to do a better job of staying on those situations when they come up and being alert and aware. Then there’s a portion of those that come up in the years that there’s turnovers that happen to be the way that the ball bounces in some cases where we wind up getting a loose ball that runs our way. So it’s kind of a combination of all of those. Certainly something that we’re trying to do a great job of fundamentally -- always tackling and taking the ball away -- tackling and turnover are something we emphasize. Our first priority is going to be to tackle and tackle well, which is something that we’re going to always try to do. Then we’re going to try to attack the ball when we can.”   
Those 171 words can be distilled into, “Not only are we not creating them, we’re not even running into the ones that might happen by chance.”

Finally, I asked how far the Patriots were from playing competent defense that speeds up offenses. Because, just to read the tea leaves, Patricia and Bill Belichick don’t trust their pass rush to get home and/or contain mobile quarterbacks. Because of that, they don’t want to play man-coverage as a first-option (though they did play more this week).

They’ll change approach inside the red zone where the field’s compressed. But outside the 20, they want to guard against extended plays that players like Russell Wilson or Tyrod Taylor can create or home run-gains like LeVeon Bell or Antonio Brown can extract.

“You’ve got to look at the stuff that’s week in and week out that is working that’s basically the core of what you do and hopefully you’re improving and getting that better and if there are things that aren’t playing the way that you want them to, then certainly you’re going to try to not call them or move away from them or whatever the case may be,” Patricia explained. “Certainly there are a lot of situations where the guys are right there and we just have to make a better play or something happens and we just don’t get it executed the way we wanted to and that’s part of taking a look at what we’re doing trying to make sure that it’s as clean as possible.”

There’s clearly time to either A) change things or B) improve what’s not working. That’s actually been a longtime hallmark of Belichick. He’s good at fixing stuff.

The in-season change for 2016 began when they decided to rid themselves of Collins and stick Elandon Roberts at linebacker to ride-or-die with. It seemed to continue as well with the reduced play-time for Jabaal Sheard, who is being supplanted by Trey Flowers. Now that Wilson brought it home clearly that the way the Patriots are playing defense won’t suffice against even a “good” offense with a strong quarterback, expect more changes and tweaks.  

The Patriots’ turnover-differential is currently plus-1. And it would be a helluva lot worse if their quarterbacks had thrown more than one pick through nine games. From 2010 to 2015 it was: 28, 17, 25, 9, 12 and 7.

Look, 7-2 is terrific. And after the Patriots are done with Colin Kaepernick, Bryce Petty and Jared Goff over the next three games, there’s a good chance they’ll be 10-2 and their turnover numbers will look a lot healthier.

But the Patriots’ transformation from a defense that made offenses uncomfortable and mistake-prone to one that teams have to look forward to challenging is the story of the 2016 season so far. And it’s got subplots.

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