The New England Patriots have been an offensive juggernaut for years. In the past 10 seasons, they have ranked in the top 10 in scoring offense exactly 10 times. It doesn’t get much better than that. Don’t expect much to change this season. The team returns the bulk of their roster on that side of the ball, including the all-important Tom Brady at quarterback.
The defensive side of the ball looks a little different. There are a lot of moving pieces, and the results could change drastically. The returns of Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo, and Vince Wilfork could have a major impact. The additions of Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis could have a major-er impact. And that’s not even taking into account the development of young talents like Jamie Collins and Dominique Easley.
At worst, Pats fans are going to see much of what we have seen in recent seasons: a mediocre-at-best defense that doesn’t have what it takes to win the big game. At best, this could be the best Patriots’ defense in a very long time. If the latter scenario plays out, it will be worth taking a look at the other elite defenses this unit would be competing against.
Without further ado, here are the top five Patriots’ defenses of the last 25 years:
The Patriots put together some solid defensive units right up until 2010. While many others put up similar stats, the 2008 group makes the cut at #5 because of what they meant to the team.
As I mentioned, the Patriots have been an offensive juggernaut for a long time. The one year that you could argue otherwise was 2008, when Brady went down with his season-ending knee injury. Yet the team still managed to finish the season at 11-5. Sure, Matt Cassel stepped in and played adequately in Brady’s absence, but it was really the defense that carried this team on its back. By some odd stroke of fate, they were left out of the playoff picture even with their 11 wins, but that doesn’t take away from what this unit accomplished. They finished up 8th in the league in points allowed after shutting out the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 when it mattered most.
In the past 25 years, the Patriots have had one of the two best scoring defenses in the league three times. 2006 was one of those years. The defense was littered with star players (Tedy Bruschi, Rosevelt Colvin, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Vince Wilfork), helping them become the #2 scoring defense in part by only allowing 10 touchdowns through the air. Considering we were well into the NFL’s pass-first era at this point, that is no easy task.
Asante Samuel’s 10 interceptions were the statistical highlight.
Three years prior, the Patriots’ defense led them all the way to the Super Bowl. That unit would be on this list if it dated back that far. However, plenty of those same players were still on the roster for the 1988 campaign. And while the ‘88 squad couldn’t make it to the big game – or even make the playoffs for that matter – their defense might have been even better than it was in ‘85.
Led by Pro Bowl linebacker Andre Tippett, the ‘88 Patriots defense ranked in the NFL’s top five in both scoring and total yards allowed. A big part of their success came from the secondary. Cornerback Raymond Clayborn and safety Fred Marion led a stout unit that ranked third in the league in passing defense.
The ‘88 Patriots had a playoff defense, no doubt. If only their offense wasn’t forced to start four different quarterbacks over the course of the season, things may have gone a little differently.
The year of the linebacker. Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, Willie McGinest, and Mike Vrabel made up arguably the best linebacking corps the NFL has ever seen. While they were all on the roster for a couple other seasons, they played by far the most games together as a unit in 2004, and it showed. While none of them boasted landmark numbers individually, their impact paved the way for the #2 scoring defense in the league. And damn were they fun to watch.
Oh, and they won the Super Bowl.
#1 in the league in scoring defense. Super Bowl Champions. Three shutouts. That’s what it takes to earn the top spot on this list. 29 interceptions and 18 forced fumbles don’t hurt either.
It’s going to be tough for the 2014 Patriots’ defense to live up to those standards. But you never know.
Follow Tanner Howard at @TC_Howard
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