The Patriots defense turned in their best effort of the season against the Carolina Panthers, holding them to just 240 total yards of offense, a season-best for the Pats D. But aside from the stats, the energy the defense brought jumped off the field, as they controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the game in a dominant effort reminiscent of some of New England's best defenses of recent memory.
"First of all, I just got to give the defensive coaching staff and players a lot of credit, said Bill Belichick on Monday morning. "They were well-prepared. They read their keys well, played physical and aggressive, took advantage of some opportunities. Playing from ahead, stopping the run and creating some passing distances was advantageous for us as well. In general, I thought they did a good job. The two big stops after the turnovers after the sudden change, I thought those were really important series for us."
What a difference a year makes. In 2020, the Patriots defense began the year shorthanded and watched injury attrition further deplete their ranks. The results were a league-worst run defense that could not contain the offenses they faced well enough to get New England into the playoffs.
Now, in 2021, the Patriots defense is slowly climbing the rankings, sitting at fourth in points (18.9 ppg), ninth in yards and fourth in takeaways. The 2020 32nd-ranked Football Outsiders DVOA run defense has been transformed into one that is working its way into the top-10 of the league. That collection of important stats tells the tale of a defense that is ascending and raising the hopes of Patriots Nation that this is coming together and looking like the kind of veteran defense that can be counted again even the most prolific offenses.
"It all starts up front, the guys at the line of scrimmage, their consistency and their dependability give the linebackers an opportunity to be more aggressive and can attack the line of scrimmage better because they know exactly where the guys in front of them are going to be," said Belichick. "When you don't know where the guy in front of you is going to be, then you play with a little bit of hesitation, you're kind of waiting to see where he is, and then where you go."
Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux and Christian Barmore led the way up front, controlling the line of scrimmage from the get-go, allowing the veteran group of linebackers to do what they do best -- make plays. Kyle Van Noy and Ja'Whaun Bentley were active, while Dont'a Hightower's physicality is setting the tone for the defense. Behind the front, a zone-coverage-heavy approach helped contribute to three more interceptions that gave the Patriots 10 takeaways in their last four games.
"It's easier to show whenever you're winning," said Hightower of the performance against Carolina. "This is a great group of guys. Obviously, with the work ethic that we have. It's more of 'always work' whenever you come into the work building. Whenever you have guys like that Jamie, Judon, J.C., the list goes on, whenever you have guys like that in the locker room it makes playing for each other easier. It makes the locker room culture a lot better."
There's plenty of reason for optimism about the Patriots playoff chances if the defense continues to play like this, especially if they keep getting takeaways that can overshadow most problems. Let's size up what the defense will have to contend with over the last eight games of the season.
|Team||Overall Offensive DVOA||Pass DVOA||Rush DVOA|
|at Falcons (TNF)||26th||24th||31st|
|at Bills (MNF)||11th||8th||18th|
Despite concerns about the depth in the secondary, it will likely be the run defense that is the biggest factor in delivering the Patriots into the playoffs. It starts this week against the Cleveland Browns, who own the most potent rushing attack in the NFL, with Nick Chubb posting 721 yards already and leading the league with eight explosive rushes of 20 yards or more. The Browns could also welcome back Kareem Hunt after his stint on IR to give them back another effective rusher, though D'Ernest Johnson had 146 yards against the Broncos in an effective fill-in effort.
The Patriots look like they'll avoid Derrick Henry, who still leads the league in rushing yards after landing on IR last week and is expected to miss the rest of the season with a foot injury, but the Colts' Jonathan Taylor, who is second to Chubb with seven explosive rushes and second in the NFL with 821 rushing yards, will provide a significant post-bye challenge. Even Jacksonville's James Robinson (482 rushing yards, five touchdowns, four explosive rushes) is having a good season for the Jaguars.
This slate of rushing opponents will tell us where the Patriots run defense really stacks up.
If the run defense is the biggest factor to making the playoffs as far as the defense is concerned, it will be the pass defense that will determine how high their ceiling is. Without Henry, the Titans will lean heavily into AJ Brown and Julio Jones, a potent combination that could strain the Pats' secondary depth. And then there's the Bills, whose own playoff chances rest heavily on Josh Allen's capable arm and legs. The Bills have struggled to run the ball of late but have enough passing weapons to attack New England in some key spots.
Two seasons ago, the Patriots defense set the league on fire for the first half of the season, then they lost to the Ravens and sputtered down the stretch, watching their season ended by a Titans team that rushed for over 200 yards on them. At long last, and through many twists and turns, it seems like the defense is finally getting back on track and is rounding into a form that should help New England make some noise over the final months of the season.