Defense makes strides, as usual
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Six weeks ago, the Patriots defense was causing an extreme case of panic for those who counted on the defending Super Bowl champions once again being legitimate contenders.
Between all the big plays, the wide-open receivers, the video-game amount of points that were being racked up every week, the worry meter was at an all-time high.
And when linebacker Dont’a Hightower, one of the unit’s few stars, went down with a season-ending injury, that seemed like the final straw.
Only, we should have known better.
This is the way it works with teams coached by Bill Belichick. Throw in the towel if you want. Call them one of the worst defenses in NFL history, which is where they were headed, but they’ll figure it out at some point. Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have been down this road too many times.
Sure, it was stunning to see all the breakdowns and miscommunication early on. It didn’t seem like there was anything they could do to right the problem given their lack of playmakers, particularly in the front seven.
But they have. They always do.
Granted, they’re not the 1985 Bears. But eventually it all comes together to a point where they can complement Tom Brady, which is the goal.
“Hey, it was a big concern to me early because you don’t want to lose AFC games. Even the mighty Patriots can have doubts cast upon them,” former Pats safety and current NBC analyst Rodney Harrison said. “But I knew they’d simplify things and guys would catch on. They always do. I just didn’t envision them playing this well for this extended period of time.”
After the first four weeks, the Patriots were dead last in the NFL, allowing an average of 32 points per game. In five games since, that same defense has allowed just 13.4 points per game. Denver marked the fifth straight game in which the Pats allowed 17 or less points.
Sure, they’re still 32nd in the NFL in total yards allowed (408.3 per game), but with Belichick defenses, points allowed is the most important statistic. In that regard, they’re now 14th, averaging 21.7 per game overall.
Is it perfect? No. The Pats still give up an occasional big play. They still bend like a pretzel. They still have no pass rush. But they’re doing enough to be the right kind of defense that works perfectly with Brady. That’s what happened last year. Eventually, they got it, and it was good enough to win a Super Bowl.
“You can have that bendbut-don’t break mentality when you have Tom Brady,” Harrison said. “Knowing you’re going to score a lot of points helps the defense and the scheme of the defense. That’s why Belichick doesn’t care if he gives up 400 or 500 yards of total offense or if a team moves the ball up and down the field and kicks field goals because they know in their back pocket, they have Brady and that offense.”
In Sunday night’s 41-16 win, the Pats forced the Broncos to kick two field goals in the red zone out of three attempts.
The Pats defenders all talk about improving week to week and still are not as good as they hope to be. The communication issues that plagued them early aren’t as obvious. They’re much better at stopping the run, which makes them better in the red zone.
“If you’re in December and your defense is ranked dead last, then you have problems,” television analyst Solomon Wilcots said. “But if you go back and look, they get better as the season goes on. They make adjustments, they’re always tweaking, and they’re not afraid to bench people who don’t produce.
“That’s how it goes in New England.”
Belichick and Patricia just keep working with the parts and coaching them up.
As presently constituted, it’s not a defense loaded with superstars. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore is the $65 million dollar asset, but after him, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler at the other corner and Pro Bowl safety Devin McCourty, it’s a bunch of regular guys playing roles and doing their jobs.
Belichick made a trade last year for Kyle Van Noy, put him in a position to succeed, and the linebacker is making the most of his opportunity. There are dozens of stories just like him through the years.
“I think Bill has proven over time that they can win with different people, with different names on the back of the jersey. So the system is maybe more important than the sum of its parts,” Wilcots said. “They teach principles where the average athlete can achieve it. That’s fact. That’s gospel truth. He doesn’t create a system that requires all-stars to perform and execute what he’s asking them to do.
“That’s why he’s always saying, ‘Just do your job.’”
And because they listen to the Hoodie, the defense has it worked out.
We should have known.
IN THE GRASP: Safety Patrick Chung tackles Broncos running back Devontae Booker during the Pats’ win Sunday night in Denver.