Phil Perry

Mailbag: Why an elite D won't be enough to win at a high level in 2023

Can a team led by its defense win in 2023? Phil Perry answers that and more of your questions.

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We're through the spring portion of the NFL schedule and headed for summer. But before we kick our feet up, we have to unload The Bag.

Let's start with a big-picture thought that I've been kicking around for the last few years...

This is a topic that has interested me for a while, Guy. That interest got ratcheted up back in 2020 when I saw that one of the best defensive minds to ever walk a sideline, Nick Saban, suggested that playing stifling defense isn't enough to win at the college level anymore.

The following fall, I asked Bill Belichick if his friend's assessment applied to the NFL.

"Each game is its own game," he said, "so it’s hard to generalize. I don’t think having a good defense is a bad thing. It’s hard to score 50 points every game. It’s nice when you don’t have to score a lot of points. We won a Super Bowl scoring 13 points. That’s not a bad thing... 

"Football is a team game, and there’s three facets to it. If you’re not good in an area, it’s probably going to catch up with you against a better-balanced team. I understand what Nick’s saying. We’ve talked about that. There are definitely more challenges defensively than maybe what there used to be between the rules and the way the game is being played. There are a lot of good offensive coaches."

What does the league tell us, though, based on who's winning? I took a look at the last five postseasons in the NFL to track whether or not a team carried by an elite defense could win at a high level. The results were fascinating.

Next Pats Podcast: Who’s the odd man out if the Patriots sign DeAndre Hopkins? | Listen & Follow | Watch on YouTube

For this exercise, I used Football Outsiders' DVOA metric to determine whether a team was "elite" offensively or defensively. Offensive and defensive units that ranked inside the top 10 in DVOA during the regular season were deemed "elite."

Here's what I learned...

1. You can make the postseason with an elite defense and a non-elite offense. A top-10 defense can carry you to the postseason. But the evidence would suggest that you can't get very far that way.

2. There have been 14 teams to make the postseason with an elite defense and a non-elite offense. That is 21 percent of all participants (66 playoff teams over the last five years). Not an insignificant sample. You can get in the dance that way.

3. Of those 14 teams with elite defenses and non-elite offenses, however, only three have won games. None have won more than one game in their respective playoff runs. Fourteen appearances. Three wins.

4. There have been 21 teams to make the postseason with an elite offense and a non-elite defense. That's 32 percent of all participants. That's an 11 percent advantage over the teams with elite defenses and non-elite offenses.

5. Teams with elite offenses and non-elite defenses tended to find much more success in the postseason than teams possessing the opposite. Twelve of those 21 elite-offense-only clubs made their conference championship games. Three won Super Bowls. The elite offense-only Super Bowl winners included the 2018 Patriots. Their defense held the Rams to three points in that year's Super Bowl, but it was not a top-10 unit in DVOA that season.

6. There have been 18 teams to make the postseason with an elite defense AND an elite offense. More often than not -- 18 to 14 -- teams with an elite defense ALSO had an elite offense to help them to the postseason.

7. Of those 18 teams with elite defenses AND elite offenses, seven made the conference championship game. Three won Super Bowls. Those Super Bowl winners included each of the last three Super Bowl champions. The Patriots made the postseason with an elite offense and an elite defense in 2021 but lost in the Wild Card Round to the Bills, who also had an elite offense and an elite defense.

Back to Guy's question now. 

Can a team led by its defense win in 2023? The evidence would suggest it can win enough to get to the postseason. But the evidence would also suggest it can't win at a high level. 

It looks like the Patriots have a very good chance of having an elite-level defense in 2023. But if they want to get to the postseason and make some noise, they'll likely need to be sniffing elite offensive territory. 

Adding a talented veteran free-agent receiver certainly wouldn't hurt them in that regard.

Good question, Chris, and we tackled it a bit on the most recent Next Pats Podcast. To me, it could be Kendrick Bourne, who was available during minicamp but still landed on our "Stock Down" list. Focus seemed to be a bit of an issue for him. He had a false start. He had a drop that was picked. His potential is there -- he had an 800-yard season in 2021 -- but he's also the kind of align-anywhere wideout that DeAndre Hopkins appears to be at this stage of his career.

Like Bourne, Hopkins isn't a deep-threat-only. But he's also, like Bourne, not a slot-only. If I'm Belichick, I wouldn't cut or trade Bourne if Hopkins arrives. You need depth. But Bourne might be the player who sees less playing time and fewer targets upon Hopkins' arrival.

Miguel! Those moves didn't move the needle for me when it comes to compiling the 53-man roster. Threw one together yesterday. I do wonder if having Kevin Harris as the No. 2 "big back" on the roster wouldn't force Belichick to look elsewhere for more experienced depth at that position. 

I think Josh Bledsoe faces an uphill battle to make the roster. It's a deep group in the secondary.

I wonder if Jack Jones is poised to truly establish himself as a playmaker on the outside. He needs to be a pro. He needs to stay on the field. But he has ball skills that are reminiscent of what J.C. Jackson brought to the table. They flashed consistently during minicamp.

I think it'll end up being Trent Brown. They need it to be Brown. Maybe some tough love from Adrian Klemm is in order. He responded well to that style of coaching when Dante Scarnecchia was in charge of that position group. 

We'll get deeper into this later in the offseason, Harry. But think middle-of-the-field passing game. Think power running game. It'll look different. It should cater to the quarterback's skill set. It should take advantage of the talent they have at tight end.

If Hopkins is added, that would change some things in terms of emphases. But I think the big-picture approach wouldn't be drastically altered. 

Both have been practicing with the defensive backs more than I anticipated. My belief is -- if they make the roster -- both would be primarily kicking-game options.

I did notice on Day 2 of minicamp that Pierre Strong made a nice blitz pickup on a Ja'Whaun Bentley rush. We'll see him execute those types of plays more often in training camp once the pads come on, but he should be relatively adept in that regard headed into his second season. 

I do. Versatile. Able to disguise. Talented pass-rushers (Matthew Judon, Josh Uche, Christian Barmore, Deatrich Wise). Talented coverage players. They should be excellent. I'd be surprised if they aren't a top-10 scoring defense in 2023, which isn't the hot take it may appear to be. Belichick has fielded top-10 scoring defenses on an almost annual basis over the course of the last decade or so. 

1. I think they'd like to let Jones focus as much as possible on his defensive and special-teams roles. But they have to find ways to get the football in his hands on a handful of occasions every week. If that's offensively, so be it. Don't make him attend all offensive meetings during the week. Just give him a couple of gadget plays, wind him up, let him go.

2. JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Let's take the two specialists -- Chad Ryland and Bryce Baringer  -- out of the equation. Both should have major roles right away. But fourth-rounder Jake Andrews got reps with the top offense at right guard with Mike Onwenu out. Fifth-rounder Atonio Mafi did the same at one point during the OTA portion of the spring. Sixth-rounder Demario Douglas got an opportunity to play with the top offense thanks to injuries at his position. Those would be the three names I'd mention.

Sidy Sow gets an honorable mention as a guy who played guard most of his collegiate career but looks like he'll have a spot on the team as a reserve tackle.

He's getting reps at tackle. Looks like he's down the depth chart. We'll see how it looks with the pads on.

Thanks for the kind words, Brownie. The way to fix it would be... get Trent Brown on board. Then just make sure things are suitable on the other side of the line. The Patriots should feel pretty good about getting someone from the group of Calvin Anderson, Riley Reiff, Conor McDermott and Sidy Sow to play as an average right tackle. Asking that group to hold up at both tackle spots feels like pie-in-the-sky thinking.

A deal for Bengals tackle Jonah Williams -- who may be the odd man out in their starting lineup after Cincinnati signed Orlando Brown Jr. -- would be intriguing but would likely be pricey from a compensation standpoint.

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