clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Patriots’ defense is making a midseason turnaround. Here’s how they’re doing it.

New, comment

After a horrible start, New England has allowed just 20 points its last two games.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

After a tough start to 2017, the New England Patriots are 6-2. More importantly, their performance on Sunday proved they can win a game even when their offense isn’t operating in high gear.

Tom Brady threw for more than 300 yards, but the Patriots only found the end zone once in a 21-13 victory over the Chargers. Despite several trips into Los Angeles territory, New England struggled to finish drives, putting pressure on an embattled defensive unit to keep a dangerous opponent at bay.

And for the second straight week, the defense responded.

While Los Angeles gained an efficient 6.7 yards per play, the Patriots ability to drive Philip Rivers and his team backward in important situations ultimately prevented an upset on Foxborough. With a few notable exceptions (Melvin Gordon’s 87-yard touchdown run first and foremost among them), the New England defense kept the Chargers from gaining any kind of rhythm or identity on the offensive side of the ball, leading to five straight punts in the middle of the game and helping take some drama out of an otherwise stressful season.

So what’s been the key behind this mini revival?

Even without Malcom Brown, the Patriots’ front seven brought enough pressure to make Philip Rivers uncomfortable

Brown, arguably the most talented member of the New England defensive front, missed Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. While his absence was felt in the running game, where Melvin Gordon ran for 132 yards on 14 carries, the defensive line came together as a group to harass Rivers all afternoon.

Rivers only took one sack — on an awkward fumble of his own design — but dealt with pressure throughout the game as the Patriots dialed up a blitz-heavy defense in the second half. The Chargers, forced to throw the ball thanks to a two-possession deficit, often saw their veteran quarterback’s windows shut down prematurely as his pocket shrunk. Though New England was only credited with two QB hits, they created more pressure in Week 8 than it had earlier in the season.

Credit the continuing development of Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise Jr. for that. The two young linemen are the two most important pieces of the Patriot pass rush, crumpling the pocket from the edges (though Wise also has the strength to work inside) and forcing opposing quarterbacks to step up.

If Brown and players like Alan Branch and Adam Butler can step up in coming weeks, that group has the talent to make any opposing quarterback uncomfortable in Foxborough.

Super subs Johnson Bademosi and Jonathan Jones have paired with a resurgent Malcolm Butler to steady the secondary

The Patriots were supposed to fall apart without starting cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe. Instead, a bad secondary has improved significantly thanks to the presence of one All-Pro corner and a pair of reserves who aren’t playing like second-stringers. Bademosi has been the primary beneficiary of the snaps Gilmore left behind. He’s performed admirably as New England, a team that had allowed 300-plus pass yards in each of its first six games, has limited two Pro Bowl passers to just 445 yards in its last two games.

Jones hasn’t been as impressive, but his ability to recover back to the ball and make big plays has mitigated the risks he takes in coverage. While he’s not a No. 1 corner, he’s proven to be a reliable nickel option who can get to the ball in a hurry.

The team has played better without Gilmore and Rowe in the lineup, but it’s tough to reconcile the absence of two above-average starters with a better performance. In fact, the biggest part of New England’s revival has been a return to form from Butler, who along with Devin McCourty, has cut out the damning mistakes that were the preface to underwhelming performances the first six weeks of the season.

With those two — and the mercurial Patrick Chung — both regressing back to the mean, the presence of any league-average replacements would still generate a significant turnaround after New England’s dreadful start.

The true test of Gilmore’s mettle will come when he returns. The Patriots haven’t quite generated the performance they’d hoped for after giving Gilmore a massive contract to take over as the team’s top corner (assuming Bill Belichick was intent on trading Butler at that point). Gilmore will join a better unit when he returns, presumably after the bye week. He’ll have to prove he can be the key that takes New England’s defensive backs from “above average” to “great.”

Kyle Van Noy is playing well in Dont’a Hightower’s absence

With Hightower out for the rest of the season thanks to a torn pectoral muscle, Van Noy has been given the keys as the team’s defensive play caller. The former Lion has come up big in recent weeks — most notably stopping Taylor Gabriel on the Falcons’ ill-fated, fourth-and-goal.

He currently leads the team in tackles for loss; his 3.5 sacks this season have already eclipsed his previous career total.

Van Noy’s versatility is a tremendous asset for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. The Patriots used Hightower like a Swiss Army knife, asking him to handle everything from typically inside linebacker run-stuffing duties to coming off the edge as a pass rusher. His ability to adapt gave the rest of the New England defense the flexibility to be adventurous.

Van Noy isn’t the same kind of singular talent that Hightower is, but he’s showing off the kind of skill that made him the 40th overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft. On Sunday, he was bolstered by Elandon Roberts, a 2016 sixth-round pick who showed flashes of talent as a rookie and overcame an underwhelming preseason to cement his place in the lineup. Together, the pair combined for 11 solo tackles against Los Angeles.

Van Noy isn’t the only low-cost acquisition to step up. David Harris didn’t record a tackle Sunday, but his jailbreak blitz, bowling over Melvin Gordon in the process, was what flushed Rivers from the pocket prior to his self-induced fumble. Carrius Marsh continues to be a long-armed disruptor in platoon situations. While they don’t have massive roles, they provide the necessary depth New England needs to roll through a demanding 16 game schedule.

The Patriots needed their defense to step up for games in which Tom Brady is merely “great”

That improved defense will be paramount to the team’s Super Bowl title defense — especially if the offense struggles the way it did Sunday.

The Patriots had no problem pushing the ball into scoring position, but came away with just 19 offensive points on 10 drives that got to the NE 44-yard-line or deeper. Brady and Rob Gronkowski struggled to connect at times — Gronk caught just five of his nine targets on the day — and Brady got caught trying to force deep balls into coverage on multiple occasions. Brandin Cooks, who had averaged nearly 20 yards per reception with Brady, was limited to 26 yards on five catches. The team may also be without Chris Hogan for a spell after the deep-threat left Sunday’s game with an apparent arm/shoulder injury.

Despite all that, the Patriots still scored 21 points and would have had 27 with a perfect Stephen Gostkowski. There’s no need to worry about the New England offense — the four-headed running back attack of Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead, and Mike Gillislee showed up Sunday to remind everyone the myriad ways the Pats can beat you — but it’s not unreasonable to think Brady would keep up his record-setting pace throughout his age 40 season.

That big arm was the only thing that carried New England to wins over New Orleans and Houston and kept the team in the hunt against Carolina. Now, with a revived defense trending back upward, the Patriots can win games in which Brady is just good rather than legendary. That’s the kind of power that makes this team a Super Bowl favorite at the 2017 midway point.

The top stories from Sunday’s NFL action