Since going back-to-back games against the Saints and Buccaneers earlier in the season without a takeaway, the Patriots defense has been on a tear. In the last seven games, they've produced 16 takeaways, highlighted by four picks in the fourth quarter against the Falcons in a dominating 25-0 effort.
Overall, New England now leads the league in interceptions with 18 and the takeaways have been a huge part of the five-game win streak.
Most impressive is how they're doing it, as the defense has clicked into sync in recent weeks, with the run-stopping, pass rush and secondary all working together to produce an impressive stretch that has seen the team allow just 13 points over the last three games.
"I think when we look at the interceptions throughout the league we see a lot of those interceptions occur on pressures," said Bill Belichick in a recent edition of Coffee with the Coach. "Sacks are sacks but pressures a lot of times lead to interceptions and turnovers. They're both important and if a quarterback's really determined to get rid of the ball he can get rid of the ball before he gets sacked. He can get rid of it but sometimes those pressures lead to errant throws. We've seen quite a few of those plays already this year."
Those plays continued into the Falcons game, with the secondary preying off of good pressure forcing those errant throws. Opportunistic players like J.C. Jackson seem to be in the right spot at the right time as everything is starting to click.
"I think that's been a story for us in the passing game, interceptions have come from great pressure," said Devin McCourty after the win over Atlanta, himself picking up his second interception of the season in the contest. "Almost every interception we've had, when you look back through it, somebody's hitting the quarterback, somebody's causing the pressure. I think that's how we need to play as a defense and when we play like that it's going to be tough to beat us."
|Kyle Van Noy
While it's been the secondary getting most of the turnover glory, it's been the defensive front that's been doing the dirty work with aggressive and physical play that has forced opposing quarterbacks into plenty of mistakes. Matthew Judon added to his team-leading sack total with one against Atlanta, setting a career-high with 10.5 sacks, while rookie Christian Barmore continues to ascend as a disruptive interior force.
The tone the defense has been setting is not lost on rookie quarterback Mac Jones.
"That's something you always have in the back of your mind," said Jones following the Thursday win. "Just as a quarterback, you know you have a really good defense. You can kind of get a feel for the game, based on how they're playing too. You understand they're making a lot of stops and eventually those guys will get a turnover like they always do, and we just have to play together, and they played great. We have a lot of veteran guys on that defense, and I've gone against them a ton in practice and they're not an easy defense to go against. They do a great job and I hope they can continue to play like that, and we can step it up for them so we can get more points on the board."
Thursday night's shutout on a short week was one of the more impressive efforts of the season. With Mac and the offense struggling to find the consistency they had against the Browns, the Pats D stepped up and made sure Atlanta was never able to find any rhythm of their own. Any time the Falcons started to make a push, the defense stepped up with big plays like Kyle Van Noy's second-quarter sack that pushed the Falcons to the edge of field goal range or Adrian Phillips and Carl Davis combining to blow up a fourth-down run attempt in the third quarter after Jones had thrown an interception.
Then, with the game winding down, the pressure started to pay off and the Patriots picked off four passes in the final frame to close things out.
"I don't want to brag too much but I feel like we have one of the best defenses in the league," said J.C. Jackson, who is now just two interceptions behind league leader Trevon Diggs. "We got a good pass rush and guys up front that are doing good this season. The secondary has always been pretty good and we are starting to build chemistry."
Jackson continued to explain why the Pats defense is playing so well.
"Playing team defense and communicating," said Jackson. "Guys are where they are supposed to be playing their keys. Also, when you got smart guys who can play you are always going to make plays like that."
Now, the Patriots can look forward to a season-defining four-game stretch against the Titans, Bills (twice) and Colts. Each team will provide their own unique challenges, but if the Patriots defense continues to play this style of complementary football, with all three levels of the defense locked in and playing together, the sky is the limit for New England in the AFC.