The Patriots defense turned in another strong effort in Sunday's win over the Steelers, allowing just 14 total points and shutting out Pittsburgh on their final two drives, giving New England's offense the opportunity to close out the win, which they did.
Through two games, the Pats defense has shown they've evolved since a lackluster finish to 2021. Not only have they added speed at the second level, but they're getting rejuvenated and even surprising performances from some of their long-time veterans. Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo have done an excellent job rejiggering the attack and should continue to do so. With a number of new options to play with, we're only scratching the surface of the defense's potential.
What's changed? Well, let's start with Deatrich Wise. It might have surprised some when Wise signed a four-year deal last offseason, but now that deal looks like a smart one, as Wise's play has elevated to a new level while he's also earned the respect of his teammates with his first captaincy. The vet played 90 percent of the snaps against Pittsburgh, easily a team high as far as front seven defenders go, and was again a near-constant thorn in Pittsburgh's side.
The defensive line has carried over their stout play from the summer, as they continue to consistently win the line of scrimmage with notable performances from Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux and Christian Barmore.
Mack Wilson is a new face whose play time dramatically increased this week, going from 35 percent of the defensive snaps to 64 percent, and he delivered with an athletic pass deflection that fell into the waiting arms of Jalen Mills for a key interception. Many were clamoring for improved speed at the second level and the Patriots have shown serious dedication to making it happen, often using Wilson with a member of their deep safety group as what were traditionally off-the-ball linebackers.
A corresponding move has been to experiment with both Ja'Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai on the edges to maintain a physical presence there, though both remain inside options on run downs. Tavai recorded a sack in the game, tossing Najee Harris' attempted block aside and taking Mitch Trubisky down.
On the back end, the Patriots have continued to lean into zone coverage on early downs but haven't been afraid to spin the dial with man coverage, especially on third downs. Rookie Jack Jones (22 snaps) continues to get his feet wet behind starters Jonathan Jones and Jalen Mills, he's shown good quickness and awareness in limited work. The pass defense allowed just one play beyond 20 yards in the contest, as their early attention to not allowing big plays has been stellar. Last week against the Dolphins they allowed just three such plays, while Miami went on to burn Baltimore for six 20-plus gains this past weekend, including touchdowns of 60 and 40 yards.
Add it all up and the Patriots defense is getting a wide array of contributions from a full range of players young and old. It wasn't all perfect, as the team's struggles to get off the field on third down allowed two lengthy possessions in the first half.
The start to the second half was also a bit shaky, with the defense allowing a field goal and a touchdown on the first two possessions to make it a three-point game heading into the fourth quarter.
Coming off a missed field goal that gave the Steelers their best starting field position of the day, the Patriots were able to get a stop after allowing two first downs which held Pittsburgh to a field goal. The second possession, coming right at the end of the third quarter, was the Steelers' best of the day -- a nine-play, 75-yard drive, with only one third down, the one on which they scored their only touchdown of the game.
"We got some, they got some," said Bill Belichick on Monday morning of the third down situations. "But the short yardage always skewed with the third down conversions, not always but usually, because those are close to 85 percent conversions league wide, or whatever it is, it's a pretty high number. So a lot of third downs relate to second down and first down. So doing a better job there will help you on third down. But obviously we have to convert on third-and-10 and third-and-17. We just have to do a better job there all the way around."
But those two drives were anomalies when it came to the end of the game, with the defense forcing two three-and-outs in the fourth quarter to help seal the win. Those two series are broken down below.
Patriots 17, Steelers 14, 10:49 left, 4th quarter
1-10-PIT 11 10:49) N.Harris left tackle to PIT 13 for 2 yards (D.Godchaux; M.Judon).
Judon holds the edge, Godchaux pushes the guard into the backfield, while Bentley stonewalls the offensive tackle trying to reach the second level. Mack Wilson flies in from the backside as the four Patriots take down Harris.
2-8-PIT 13 (10:13) (Shotgun) M.Trubisky pass incomplete deep left to G.Pickens.
The Patriots are in Cover-1 Man, while the pressure off the edges by Judon and Wise forced Trubisky to retreat from the pocket. His throw down the sidelines to Pickens falls short as Trubisky can't step into it due to the pass rush that disrupted the timing.
3-8-PIT 13 (10:08) (Shotgun) M.Trubisky pass short left to N.Harris to PIT 15 for 2 yards (A.Phillips, J.Mills).
The pass rush package comes on for third-and-long, including a front of Uche-Wise-Barmore-Judon with Raekwon McMillan and Jabrill Peppers serving as linebackers. Behind them the five defensive backs form a picket fence right at the first down marker, allowing the routes to disperse before matching their coverage. Judon gets a free rush and Trubisky immediately checks down. Phillips, Mills and McMillan all rally to the ball and tackle Harris for a gain of just two yards
Patriots 17, Steelers 14, 8:03 left, 4th quarter
1-10-PIT 20 (8:03) (Shotgun) N.Harris right end to PIT 25 for 5 yards (M.Judon; M.Bryant).
The Steelers try to test the edge of the defense with a play that looked half baked. Myles Bryant makes the initial hit before the pursuit of Judon and Bentley finishes Harris off after a decent gain of five yards.
2-5-PIT 25 (7:28) (Shotgun) M.Trubisky pass short right to N.Harris to PIT 28 for 3 yards (J.Tavai; M.Judon).
The Patriots are in zone defense again as the Steelers run an underneath mesh concept but Trubisky tries to take the layup with a short pass to Harris out of the backfield. Again, it's a gang tackle with Tavia, Bentley, Judon and Mills all converging and taking him down for a gain of just three yards.
3-2-PIT 28 (Shotgun) M.Trubisky pass incomplete short right to N.Harris (M.Judon).
Once again the Patriots run man coverage on third down, but drop Judon into coverage for some disguise. Lawrence Guy's oncoming pressure forced Trubisky to lay the ball out for Harris with Judon pursuing from behind. It was excellent coverage by Judon, who narrowly avoided a pass interference penalty by not making any discernable contact before the ball arrived. It fell incomplete, the Steelers punted and would not get another chance to possess the ball.
The Patriots defense is off to another excellent start, melding coverage and pass rush, not allowing big plays while tackling in force and with numbers. The new personnel wrinkles have given Belichick and Mayo plenty to play with and the growing speed is standing out more and more with each passing week. So far, they're pressing the right buttons, but with a couple of reigning NFL MVP quarterbacks on tap the next two weeks, the challenges are only going to get harder going forward.