New England's defense – a top-five unit in points allowed nearly all season – has taken plenty of criticism from fans and media alike.
At times, Bill Belichick's own words and actions were very much indicative of the coach's displeasure with the unit.
But that's not the case coming off of Sunday's 26-10 win over the Rams in which the Patriots defense held the Jared Goff-led L.A. offense to just 25 yards in the first half and didn't allow a third down conversion until well into the second half.
One of the players receiving some of the most praise was defensive end Jabaal Sheard. The veteran is just a couple weeks removed from being left behind as a healthy scratch when the Patriots traveled to San Francisco, but Sheard's performance on Sunday – he had one QB hit to force an interception and three passes defensed along with four tackles – clearly impressed his head coach.
Belichick also spent time detailing the team's edge blitzes, including Logan Ryan's sack of Goff on Sunday, as well as Kyle Van Noy settling into a more significant role that has included time leading the defensive huddle of late.
The Patriots improved to 10-2 on Sunday by taking advantage of the Rams to control the game from wire to wire and Belichick's weekly day-after-game conference call with the New England media had the tone of a coach happy with his team's win while looking to build on the performance in all three areas.
Here are a few of the highlights of morning conference call that lasted a little less than 20 minutes with the local media:
1.Sheard's had "a couple good weeks":When Sheard was left in Boston to got to the Celtics while New England traveled out West to take on the 49ers, it seemed an ominous sign for the veteran defender who had started the first eight games of the season. It was very much in the middle of a stretch of diminished playing time for the free-agent-to-be and some wondering if he was going down a similar path to the one Jamie Collins traveled.
On Sunday against the Rams Sheard played 28 snaps (54 percent) and was clearly an impact player both as a rusher and in coverage. His play, including the hit leading to Van Noy's interception, stood out to his coach, especially his ability to drop into coverage as he did a few times against L.A.
"We know he can rush the passer…the coverage plays were pretty impressive," Belichick said. "It could be a season for a defensive lineman with the number of balls he had his hands on. Very impressive awareness and getting depth to get into the passing lanes, playing the ball. When you drop defensive linemen into coverage you generally don't get a lot of production from them in coverage. They take up some space and usually the quarterback doesn't want to throw the ball into the area where someone is standing. But in terms of making plays on the ball, they don't really make a lot of them. That was good by Jabaal yesterday. He rushed well. He played the run well. He's had a couple good weeks here, so it's good to see him string them together."
2.Van Noy's role evolving: While Sheard is working his way back into a contributing role on defense, Van Noy is still adding to his contributions as he settles in with his new team. Sunday against L.A. that not only included the interception, but a role leading the New England huddle during a time when Dont'a Hightower was on the sideline.
"Well, it's just like the quarterback position, even if you bring in somebody who doesn't have a lot of experience, they still have to call the plays. That's part of the position, part of the job," Belichick said of his linebacker added via trade from Detroit in October. "Kyle's worked hard. I think he's gaining better understanding and grasp and communication on the defense every day, every week. Still a ways to go but he's made a lot of progress and we have confidence in him doing that."
Beyond the mental, Belichick praised Van Noy's physical abilities, including being able to read and react to get into position to make the play on the Sheard-caused Goff interception throw.
"Kyle is a pretty athletic player. He runs well. I don't think there is any question about that," Belichick said. "The play was a play that they'd run earlier in the game in the first quarter. I think they were trying to throw the over route to [Brian] Quick and when Goff's arm got hit the ball went maybe 10 yards behind the receiver. So he was trying to throw it out around the numbers and the ball ended up somewhere between the hash marks. In that area. It ended up being off line by quite a bit.
"Kyle made a nice adjustment once it was in the air to be able to slide and jump off balance and make a clean catch. It was a good play on the ball. He wasn't really the one covering the pattern."
3.Brady stays in to "try to win the game": Tom Brady doesn't come out of games too often, although he did just that earlier this year in his return at Cleveland. But Sunday, with the Patriots leading 26-3 in the fourth quarter Brady continued to take the snaps on the finale two drives that started with 5:52 and 1:15 to play, respectively. Though he's been dealing with a right knee injury and while a departure could have afforded the Gillette Stadium crowd a chance to voice their support of their franchise quarterback during his record-setting 201st with, Belichick doesn't sound like the thought of pulling TB12 was ever considered.
"Well, after the game turns out it's easy to go back and make those suggestions," Belichick said of possibly pulling Brady. "If seen a few games in this league, seen those double-digit leads evaporate in a minute or two. I know that's not a big concern when it doesn't happen but then when it does happen it's a major crisis. Then it's a lot of second-guessing about what shouldn't have been done or should have been done.
"We try to win the game."