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Breaking down Patriots fourth-down defensive dominance

Breaking down a dominant performance from the Patriots defense after they pitched a shutout vs. Lions.

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The Patriots defense pitched their first shutout since 2020 on Sunday against the Lions, and with rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe making the start it came at the perfect time. The outstanding performance featured a number of different clutch situations and plays, nearly all of which the Pats D won, but their most notable stops came on the six fourth downs that they faced. According to Elias Sports Bureau via ESPN's Mike Reiss, it was the first time in 45 years that a defense held an opponent without a conversion on six fourth-down attempts.

Coach Bill Belichick was quick to credit the defense all around following the win.

"Obviously, defensively, top scoring team in the league, top everything in the league, yards, points, red area, you name it," said Belichick of the Lions. "To go out there and keep those guys off the board, whatever it was, five, six, fourth downs, and just a lot of good competitive defensive football. It was great. Really proud of that whole unit, the staff, the players, pass rush coverage, our tackling."

Players shared that the week's preparation as a key factor in the performance, with the defense coming into the game expecting the aggressive Lions to go for it a lot.

"I think the big part of that was understanding if you watch the third downs, we're in the huddle, we're saying, 'This isn't the end. They're going to go for it on fourth down.' They've done that all year," said captain Devin McCourty. "So I think that was a big part of preparation. Everyone was ready to go after getting a third down stop. I'm calling guys back in the huddle."

Five weeks into the season the Patriots defense should have growing confidence after they were able to deliver in key situations. Here's a breakdown of the key fourth downs and how they all tested the unit in a variety of different ways.

Fast start

Score: 0-0

4-1-DET 45 (11:18) D.Skipper reported in as eligible. Ja.Williams up the middle to DET 45 for no gain (C.Barmore; D.Godchaux).

A big key for any top-notch defensive performance is a fast start and the Patriots defense got just that by getting a short-yardage fourth-down stop on the Lions' initial drive. It started with a good angle by Mack Wilson to run Jared Goff out of bounds just short of the sticks on third down, setting up a 4th-and-1 from Detroit's 45.

In a recurring theme for the day, the Patriots defensive front won the battle of the trenches on this critical play, with Christian Barmore slicing into the backfield from his interior spot, making the first contact. He was then aided by Davon Godchaux, who split a double team, and the downhill fill by Ja'Whaun Bentley that stuffed the play for no gain. Coming into the game ranked 32nd overall in stuffed runs, this was just the start of an excellent day for the Patriots' short-yardage defense.

"No one guy can stop the run game, but certainly it helped with the good edge play from [Judon] and Wise to try to slow down those off-tackle runs," said Belichick after the game. "Two very good tackles, right? That's really where a lot of those off-tackle plays get going. So, you have to give a lot of credit to those guys, Bentley, Tavai, D.G. inside. We push a lot of plays back into D.G. and Carl Davis, and those guys did a good job inside. It bled a little bit, but there's some 4- or 5-yarders in there, but not like the 20, 30, 50-yarders that they've been ripping off every week."

Quick change

Patriots 6-0

4-9-NE 32 (3:40) (Shotgun) J.Goff sacked at NE 45 for -13 yards (M.Judon). FUMBLES (M.Judon) [M.Judon], RECOVERED by NE-K.Dugger at NE 41. K.Dugger for 59 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Another key element to situational defensive football is coming off a quick change and responding when turnovers strike. Leading 6-0 midway through the second quarter, Bailey Zappe's deflected interception set up the Lions at midfield with a chance to take the lead with a touchdown.

The Lions were able to overcome a holding penalty, converting a 3rd-and-13 with a 20-yard pass that was one of the few defensive breakdowns in this game, but that would be the only first down they'd pick up on this drive.

As before, it started with a great play on third down, with Jahlani Tavai, Deatrich Wise and Adrian Phillips all contributing to get the stop for a seven-yard loss. Down by only six and sitting at the Pats' 32-yard line, Lions head coach Dan Campbell passed up the field goal and went for it on 4th-and-9, arguably his most questionable call of the game for Detroit with it still being a one-score lead.

The Patriots played man defense behind a five-man rush, and Matthew Judon's pressure off the offensive right was too quick to allow Goff to settle and find an open receiver. Judon crashed down on the ball, stripping it with Kyle Dugger picking it up and taking it 59 yards for the touchdown.

It was perhaps the defining play of the game for the defense, not only slamming the door shut after a Patriots giveaway, but adding critical points to the scoreboard that broke the game open.

"I will say Ju [Matthew Judon] and Dug [Kyle Dugger], they were flying around today," said McCourty. "Coming up and making big hits. Judon gets to [Jared] Goff and really gets both his arms and forces a fumble. Then Dug uses the Lenoir-Rhyne return skills to get it in the endzone. So just a huge play. I think you're watching, that play was really, I would say, two of our better guys on defense flying around, making plays. It was obviously a key point in the game."

Good start, second-half edition

Patriots 19-0

4-2-NE 34 (6:41) (Shotgun) J.Goff pass short right to A.St. Brown to NE 34 for no gain (Jo.Jones)

Good starts aren't just for the first half and the defense delivered again to start the third quarter. After stringing together a field-goal drive that extended the lead to 19-0, the Lions showed signs of life on their first possession of the second half, picking up three-straight first downs on their way down the field.

The Pats defense would stiffen at their own 34-yard line, first forcing an incompletion on 3rd-and-2 while rushing four with good disguise behind them. Goff looked unsure of what he was seeing, firing an incomplete pass between two of his receivers while late pressure from Ja'Whaun Bentley arrived.

On fourth down the Lions showed no hesitation, trying to catch the Patriots off-guard with a quick snap, however the defense was ready with Jonathan Jones and Jalen Mills quickly closing on a short pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown and tackling him for no gain. Again, the Patriots got off the field and this time they'd put it away with their only offensive touchdown of the game coming on the ensuing possession.

Earlier in the week, Bentley had pointed to better tackling as a point of emphasis for improvement and the Patriot defensive backs did the job on this play, while also staying focused as the Lions tried to push the pace.

Goal Line Stand

Patriots 26-0

4-5-NE 5 (13:17) (Shotgun) J.Goff pass incomplete short right to A.St. Brown (M.Bryant) NE 26-0

Early in the fourth quarter, the game was almost sealed but the Lions made one last push with one of their best drives of the game that took them inside the Patriots 10-yard line. While the defense had already shown the ability to quell short-yard fourth-down attempts, this time their backs were against their own end zone, an additional layer of pressure that made this stop even more impressive.

The third down was all about overwhelming pressure, as Judon made a quick inside step that beat left tackle Taylor Decker and instantly forced Goff to retreat backwards in the pocket before firing an incomplete pass into the end zone. The fourth-down play was all about the coverage, with slot cornerback Myles Bryant sticking with St. Brown on a crossing route and breaking up the pass. Mack Wilson was in the vicinity as well, as Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo spun the coverage dial with success all day.

Usually, goal-line stands are all about the short-yardage defense, but with the Lions only getting to the five-yard line it left enough space for the pass defense to be called upon. The third and fourth-down plays showed great complementary work between rush and coverage.

Run Stuff

Patriots 26-0

4-1-NE 31 (9:25) J.Jackson up the middle to NE 32 for -1 yards (R.McMillan)

Those looking for another short yardage stop that would serve as another exclamation point got it on the next Lions possession with time running out in the game. This time, needing just a single yard, linebacker Raekwon McMillan perfectly timed the snap and was able to get through the line to drop the running back for a one-yard loss. Credit also goes to Adrian Phillips and Jahlani Tavai, who pushed their own blockers into the backfield and left running back Justin Jackson with nowhere to go.

The Patriots winning the line of scrimmage and getting plays behind the line of scrimmage from their linebackers was one of the game's best developments.

Finish

Patriots 29-0

4-4-NE 18 (3:10) (Shotgun) J.Goff pass incomplete deep left to J.Reynolds (Ja.Jones) [A.Jennings]

The game was pretty much decided by the time the Lions went for their sixth and final fourth down, but it wasn't a meaningless play as the Patriots defense was able to preserve the shutout, an impressive feather in their cap against the most productive offense in the league until that point. After getting off to a good start in the first and second halves, slamming the door shut after quick change situation and dominating in key short yardage situations, the defense did perhaps the most important thing of all... finish.

Again the Patriots rushed five and the coverage behind them confounded Goff long enough for pass rushers to get the quarterback off the spot. Goff's final pass landed incomplete out of the back of the end zone and the Patriots made sure the Lions point total would remain at zero.

"There's a reason why they're the highest scoring offense in the league and most yards and all the accolades that they've had, but I think, again, really the majority of the credit needs to go to our players," said Belichick in summation of the effort by his defense. "They're the ones that went out there and defeated blocks, tackled them, covered, and all that. There's no one guy. It's just a good team effort.

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