New England Patriots: Ranking the top 5 defenses of the 21st century

Kyle Van Noy #53 of the New England Patriots celebrates with his teammates Terrence Brooks #25, Stephon Gilmore #24 and Matthew Slater #18 (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Kyle Van Noy #53 of the New England Patriots celebrates with his teammates Terrence Brooks #25, Stephon Gilmore #24 and Matthew Slater #18 (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /
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New England Patriots
Malcolm Butler #21 of the New England Patriots (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) /

New England Patriots top defense No. 5: 2016

The 2016 season will largely be remembered for the Patriots pulling off a 25 point comeback to win Super Bowl LI, and for good reason. But what often gets forgotten is that this team had one of the best defenses during the Tom Brady era, and for as good as he was in the Super Bowl, this defense was just as important in the second half of that game.

Truth be told, the advanced metrics aren’t necessarily big fans of this unit. They finished the season ranked 16th in DVOA, and weren’t necessarily a defense that opposing teams were worried about. But this defense came to personify the “bend but don’t break” mentality that catapulted the Patriots to the second act of their dynasty.

The Patriots 2016 defense finished the season with the fewest points allowed on the season, with just 250 over 16 games (good for a shiny 15.6 per game). They weren’t going to completely shut you down, but they also weren’t going to let you get in the end zone very much.

On paper, this probably isn’t one of the prettiest defenses the Pats worked with, but they came together to become a very formidable unit that rarely gave up points. Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty both earned Pro Bowl honors as a result of their performances this season, and they were generally considered the leaders of their respective position groupings.

McCourty helped turn a seemingly undermanned secondary into one of the best in the league. With him and Patrick Chung the starting safeties, teams rarely were able to get much going deep down the field. That security helped the young cornerback duo of Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan blossom into a solid pairing for the Pats. Butler ended having the best season of his career, picking off four passes and defending 17 others.

Hightower put together one of his best seasons despite some turnover at linebacker alongside him. Jamie Collins was traded away after seven games, and Kyle Van Noy was picked up right around the same time. Even despite missing three games, Hightower had one of the best seasons of his career in 2016, and he made one of the plays of the season with his strip sack of Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl.

Elsewhere on defense, the Patriots got a breakout season from Trey Flowers, who led the team with seven sacks. Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown anchored a run defense that only allowed 88.6 yards per game, which was the third lowest total in the season. Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard combined for nine sacks in their lone seasons in New England as well.

While it wasn’t the flashiest unit, the Patriots wouldn’t have won their fifth Super Bowl without the contributions they received on defense, earning them a spot on this list.