The New England Patriots left the 2018 season as Super Bowl LIII champions. In their matchup with the Los Angeles Rams, the Patriots were able to apply pressure on Jared Goff. For the game, New England compiled 13 quarterback hurries, eight quarterback hits, and four sacks. The zero blitz brought against Goff late in the 4th quarter forced Stephon Gilmore‘s quasi game-clinching interception.

Yet, the 2018 season was not filled with glorious pass rush tales trickling out of Foxborough. Last season, the Patriots tied for the second-fewest sacks in the league. They had the third worst adjusted sack rate, behind only the Giants and Raiders. Pro Football Focus was a little more enthusiastic about New England’s ability to rush the passer, as PFF had the Patriots ranked 19th in team pass rush grading.

Regardless of PFF being a little higher than the other metrics, the pass rush was not an area of strength for New England in 2018. Far from it. The team then lost its best pass rusher, Trey Flowers, in free agency. In a savvy veteran/late-round-pick-swap trade, the Patriots brought in Michael Bennett as Flowers’ replacement.

Then, in April, New England landed one of the steals of the draft in Chase Winovich. This draft pick, along with the Bennett trade, are the two moves the team made to address the edge position. At best the Bennett for Flowers swap is treading water. More likely, it is a step back.

New England pulled off the improbable, winning a Super Bowl with such a porous pass rush. Is it possible to repeat without any significant improvements? Improving to even below average in this category would be a victory. Is that an achievable goal?

New England’s historical precedent

Since the 2000s began, the only other Super Bowl champion to have an adjusted sack rate in the bottom quartile of the league besides New England is, well, New England.

Year

Super Bowl Winner

Adj Sack Rate Rank

2018

New England

T-30th

2017

Philadelphia

19th

2016

New England

27th

2015

Denver

1st

2014

New England

20th

2013

Seattle

7th

2012

Baltimore

10th

2011

New York Giants

10th

2010

Green Bay

4th

2009

New Orleans

17th

2008

Pittsburgh

3rd

2007

New York Giants

1st

2006

Indianapolis

21st

2005

Pittsburgh

4th

2004

New England

9th

2003

New England

22nd

2002

Tampa Bay

9th

2001

New England

16th

2000

Baltimore

23rd

 

In 2016, the Patriots won despite ranking 27th in adjusted sack rate. As illustrated above, it is possible to win while falling in the high teens or low 20’s in this category.

In these 19 years worth of data, 11 times the Super Bowl winner ranked in the top half of the league, with 10 of those instances coming as a top 10 finish. That still leaves eight times a team was in the bottom half of the league.

The threshold would appear to be ~22nd. Only the Ravens and Patriots have won ranking lower than 22nd, and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense is one of the top three defenses in NFL history, despite their pass rush.

The take away here is somewhat of a mixed bag. League-wide, ranking this low in adjusted sack rate doesn’t seem to be a successful path to a Super Bowl title. However, as seems to always be the case, New England is the exception. They’re the only team to have won since 2000 being in the bottom quarter of the league, and they did it twice. It is such a small sample though, that this shouldn’t be viewed as a point of optimism, suggesting there is no reason lightning can’t strike thrice.

Michael Bennett

The most significant move at the edge position for New England is the functional swap of Flowers for Bennett. Bennett was acquired in a pick swap trade, a market inefficiency where the Patriots are dominant.

On the surface, Bennett and Flowers appear to be very similar. Bennett is a bit heavier, but each player possesses the ability to shrink inside on third downs. Both players generate a lot of pressure without putting up gaudy sack totals. In fact, in 2018 their pass rushing statistics were close to one another in every category.

Stat

Flowers Bennett
Pass Rush Snaps 441 522
Pass Rush Productivity 8.3 7.7
Total Pressures 64 68
Quarterback Hurries 43 37
Quarterback Hits 12 20
Sacks 9 11
Pass Rush Grade 80.6 75.8

 

Stat

Ranking

Pass Rush Snaps

7th

Pass Rush Productivity

T-15th*

Total Pressures

5th*

Quarterback Hurries

18th*

Quarterback Hits

2nd*

Sacks

T-14th

Pass Rush Grade

18th**

*Among edges that played a minimum of 304 pass rush snaps in 2018
**Among edges that played a minimum of 511 snaps in 2018

Flowers did do more on fewer snaps, but the performance isn’t much different. At least, it isn’t $11.5 million different. This move is designed to come out as a net neutral. That isn’t overly ambitious, and perhaps not too optimistic.

Football Outsiders has done studies that determined losing talent in free agency has a greater impact than adding talent in free agency. The obvious caveat here is that Bennett was acquired in a trade, but you get the point.

We won’t speculate on why this is the case. Quick logical items that come to mind are system familiarity and chemistry with teammates, but we have no data to back that up. Whatever the reason, even if Bennett is exactly equal to Flowers in a vacuum, the odds are Bennett won’t have as large an impact in 2019 as Flowers in 2018.

Chase Winovich

Here is what we wrote in our New England draft review regarding Winovich:

“Winovich was the more productive college EDGE defender between himself and the much more hyped Rashan Gary. Winovich finished as the 29th overall player on the PFF big board, yet lasted until pick 77.

He comes to the Patriots off of back-to-back seasons with grades over 90.0, the only such qualifying Power-5 player in the draft class to do so. Winovich is a highly athletic edge that posted a 1.57 10-yard split, 4.59 40-yard dash, and 6.94 3-cone shuttle at the combine while measuring 6’2″ and 256 pounds. His last two seasons saw him rack up 15 sacks, 28 quarterback hits, and 66 total pressures on just 687 pass rushing snaps. And he is not just a pass rusher, as Winovich ranked second in the draft class among his position in run-stop percentage last season.

Winovich’s athleticism gives credence to the idea that he can take snaps at linebacker. This potential positional versatility surely caught the eye of Belichick. This is also yet another example of Belichick tapping into a college program where he believes there is elite coaching.”

Pinning your Super Bowl hopes on a rookie is a dicey proposition. We are also not suggesting that the Patriots’ Super Bowl chances lie in the hands of Winovich. However, Winovich is a highly athletic, productive pass rusher that comes to New England with positional flexibility.

He should fit right now.

Deatrich Wise Jr.

Wise is another end with the size to shrink inside on third downs. Unfortunately, Wise has yet to breakout through two seasons. In 2018, Wise ranked 57th in pass rush productivity among players that logged at least 121 pass rushing snaps. He compiled 29 total pressures, 14 hurries, 10 quarterback hits, and five sacks on 315 pass rush snaps.

In his two years, Wise has posted an overall PFF grade of 57.2 and 60.7. Last year he graded out better as a run defender than a pass rusher. While New England would welcome a big step forward here, there isn’t much evidence to point to that suggests it will happen.

John Simon

Similarly to Wise, Simon showed better last year against the run than the pass. In his six-year career, Simon has never amassed more than 3.5 sacks in a single season. Expecting a large breakout now would be ignoring all prior evidence. While an increased role may help New England’s effort to become a below average run defense, Simon doesn’t offer much pass rushing upside.

Derek Rivers

Rivers is the ultimate wildcard. Rivers was highly productive in college, leaving Youngstown State as the career sack leader with 41. He showed well at the Senior Bowl and tested well at the combine. In Indianapolis, Rivers ran a 4.61 40 yard dash, posted a 35″ vertical, a 10’3″ broad jump, 30 bench reps, and a 6.94 3-cone time, at 248 pounds.

All of the above resulted in the former third-round pick be labeled as the potential steal of the 2017 draft. Two years later, Rivers has taken the field for 97 total snaps in his career. The history of players that functionally miss their entire first two seasons does not shed an optimistic light on what Rivers can contribute in 2019.

There still is potential in there. At this point, however, Rivers may be too far behind the eight-ball to ever be salvaged.

New England’s Outlook

Last year the Patriots managed with one of the worst pass rushes in football. It doesn’t appear to be a sustainable model, and a look at the edge position doesn’t inspire much confidence in substantial improvement.

The two biggest differences in 2019 will be Bennett replacing Flowers, and the addition of Winovich. If Wise or Rivers breaks out, then that might get New England to below average in this category. This would fit the overall philosophy up in Foxborough of being the team with the fewest weaknesses, as opposed to the team with the most strengths. Getting to below average for this group would be a win.

Jonathan Rosenberg is a writer for PFN covering the New England Patriots. You can find him @frosted_takes on Twitter.