The New England Patriots take on the Carolina Panthers in a preseason game at Gillette Stadium on Friday, August 22, 2014.
FOXBOROUGH –** At the end of the Patriots Pre-Game Social, our patriots.com radio pre-game program, my colleague Andy Hart asked me on air what I was most looking forward to in this third preseason game.
"I want to see a solid effort by the Patriots defense," I told him. "If the starters are going to be in there for most of the game, if Darrelle Revis is going to be the difference maker we expect him to be, I want to see that tonight."
Got my wish…
On the first defensive play of the night, Rob Ninkovich, playing left outside linebacker in New England's 3-4 front, got good pressure on Panthers QB Cam Newton and brought him down for a four-yard loss. The drive ended a few plays later when Chandler Jones, the right outside 'backer, brought Newton down behind the line of scrimmage on 3rd-and-5, forcing a punt.
Both plays were a credit more to the secondary, which had the Panthers' receivers covered tightly – a so-called "coverage sack" – as Ninkovich readily admitted afterward.
"Oh, definitely. That first play of the game was definitely a secondary coverage sack. I was just trying to mirror the quarterback, make sure he didn't get out of the pocket, and just collapse it, and I was able to get into him. That goes all to the secondary."
But that's exactly the kind of sacks the Patriots were sorely lacking a year ago. New England rarely got coverage sacks, and the sacks they did get weren't always in "good" sacks – i.e., on critical downs and situations, like Jones' 3rd-down takedown.
On the next Carolina possession, Jones once again came through with a 3rd-down sack, only this was a product of his own making. His won his one-on-one battle and got to Newton before the QB knew what hit him, forcing the Panthers into a 3-and-out.
But wait, there's more!
New England was equally stout against the run, limiting Carolina to a mere 29 total yards on the ground by halftime. And it was Jones, somewhat surprisingly, who led the charge. He made a number of nice run stuffs, shedding would-be blockers in the process. Overall, the defense looked aggressive and confident – something that couldn't be said about them for much of the past few seasons.
Having a healthy Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly on the d-line certainly helped, too.
"It felt good," Jones said smiling at his locker later. "Even the whole defense. The guy next to me, the linebackers, and the secondary. We all did a good job. We left some plays out there, but we did a great job just doing our assignments. Some of the results tonight were just signs of guys doing their job."
Not to be overlooked was the fact that the defensive plays were being called by second-year linebacker Jamie Collins, who wore the "green dot" helmet which receives radio transmissions from defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. Collins was given the responsibility after previous green dot guys Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower dressed but didn't play a snap.
Head coach Bill Belichick was pleased with how the young Collins fared in that leadership role.
"Definitely. I feel like Jamie's done a real good job of that, taking control of the huddle. It was a good opportunity. Jamie has had several opportunities in camp to do it but did a good job of it tonight. I think it's good experience for those players to different guys handle the communication and see a, how much that kind of affects the rest of their play and also gives them better – more familiarity I should say – with the calls and what Matt is calling into the defense so even when they're not calling it, they're probably a little more aware of what the calls are."
Revis, meanwhile, did what he was brought here to do. While his primary task is to shut down the other team's top receiver, in so doing, a byproduct of that is the time it gives the front seven – whether 3-4 or 4-3 – time to do its thing.
"As a defense, you're always doing multiple things," Ninkovich added. "Whatever [front] we're in, as end-of-the-line players, our job is to stop the run and set the edge, get some pressure on the quarterback.
"It's [a testament to] just working hard throughout camp… that's what a defense is supposed to do."
"Had a tremendous time," Jones concluded. "Football is fun."
Especially when it's being played like New England did against a potent team like the Panthers. If they can keep this up all season, the Patriots will be tough to beat.