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Patriots Replay Thu May 28 | 02:00 PM - 11:59 PM

View from Above: Getting defensive is paying off, finally

I'm not usually one to brag much.  But...

...told ya' so.

Hey, I'll be the first to admit the matchup going into the game with Atlanta didn't appear to favor the Patriots.  When you consider the bigger picture coming in, a physically talented and high-powered offense figured to cause trouble for a defense that was routinely pounded on earlier in the schedule.

Add to that the ignominy of giving up a 25-point second-half lead in last year's Super Bowl and, well, motivation can fuel revenge in a big way.

Instead, it was very much the other way around.  An oft-maligned defensive unit this season has apparently discovered it can be dominant again, if Sunday night's 23-7 win over the Falcons is any indication.   

Or at the very least, the defense can be effective again.  You can see the trend beginning to shape itself going back to the Tampa Bay game, limiting the Bucs, New York Jets and Falcons to 12.7 points per game over the past three weeks.  Against the Jets, as we pointed out here a week ago, nine straight possessions to end the game resulted in a net of three points scored against this "D."    

You remember last season's #1-ranked NFL scoring defense?  It held teams to 15.6 points per game.  

That's more like it, amiright?

But as maligned as this unit appeared to be earlier in the year, giving up 400+ yards of total offense and 300+ passing yards per game overall through the first six games, it was getting hit over-the-top (and underneath) with big plays that was most troublesome.  Allowing 5.5 plays of 20+ yards per game through the first six weeks on average, the "D" dialed that down against the Falcons, giving up just two of those.  

The longest went for 22 yards.  It wasn't a 40 or 50-yard bomb leaving defensive backs in its wake.

"I thought they did a good job," Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said afterward.  "You had seen some of the things they had given up earlier in the year.  I thought they played a lot more coverage.  I thought they did a good job of keeping things in front of them for the most part tonight."

And from the Patriots' point of view?  The trending from the past two weeks had been better, sure.  But they also knew it would take more than just continued incremental improvement against the Falcons.  

"The motivation was we really knew if we didn't come ready to play that Matt Ryan had the ability to really kill us," Devin McCourty said in the locker room.  "We felt we had a really good game plan our defensive coaches came up with, and I think we kind of knew if we executed and played to it, then we were going to have a great chance to go out there and win (today)."

Mission accomplished, made all-the-sweeter with contributions from unheralded Johnson Bademosi and Jonathan Jones, subbing in for Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe.  Big plays came from the guys up front, too, like rookie Adam Butler (first career QB sack) and linebacker Kyle Van Noy (4th down goal line stop on Taylor Gabriel).  

The team also held the ATL to just two-for-nine on 3rd down.  Yeah, it was pretty sweet.  Just like old times.  So, it's okay to brag just a little bit.  

The defense earned it.

But then again...

Not all was picture perfect Sunday night.  Before the New England fog rolled in and made itself comfortable in front of a national audience, there were a few warts exposed for everyone to see.

Namely, the number and frequency of penalties early in the game.  Two on the opening drive of the game (Philip Dorsett illegal block, Nate Solder holding) took away an early scoring chance, an offensive pass interference call on Rob Gronkowski during Drive Two and another hold from Solder on the third drive of the game pretty much kept the offense bottled up as the defense set about its' redemption.

If not for the Falcons' own mistakes (roughing the passer on Adrian Clayborn against Tom Brady, rubbing out a pick), it could have been uglier than it was.  Overall, eight penalties for 65 yards (55 yards in the first quarter!) was a step backward after a relatively clean performance against the J-E-T-S.

On the offensive

How was the play on short yardage situations?  

Overall, the Patriots converted 7-of-13 on third downs, and hit on two-out-of-three on 3rd and one plays – a marked improvement over previous weeks.  Mike Gillislee was stopped for a loss at the end of the 3rd quarter, but for the most part there was vast improvement up front for the running game.

36 rushes for 162 yards (4.5 yards per carry) with five different players running the ball (including TB12 scrambles and sneaks) spread the threat around considerably.  But without the forward push and holes opening up front, it's likely the game falls to Brady's shoulders once again.  

At least against Atlanta, it didn't have to.

Watching the QB

It may very well be that the defense doesn't have to face too many more so-called "athletic" quarterbacks.  It may also be that a QB doesn't have to be considered "athletic" to do damage against the Patriots, either.

While giving up a fair share of yardage previously to guys who can beat you with their legs as well as their arms, the NE defense did allow Matt Ryan to get loose on a couple of big gains during scrambles Sunday night.

Ryan ran three times for 37 yards, all on passing attempts that were apparently covered well by the secondary.  But two of his runs were in key situations where containment should be called for; one led to the Falcons' only touchdown and another came on a drive that resulted in a missed field goal.

Every season's signature moment

There will be time to reflect later, of course.  But when looking back on a season past, especially when it is a successful one, it's usually easy to find one or two plays that stand out as jump-starters to that success.

The Patriots, arguably, could have had two of those occur Sunday night.  Cassius Marsh getting credit for the block on Matt Bryant's 37-yard attempt late in the first quarter was a tone-setter for the game, no doubt.  But if the kick had been good – which would have given the Falcons an early 3-0 lead – how does that change the game's complexion?

Tough to say, of course.  But playing with a lead instead of playing from behind is always a good thing, which can lead to other good things.

And Kyle Van Noy's five-yard takedown of wide receiver Taylor Gabriel's 4th and 1 sweep at the goal line early in the 4th quarter would have been a walk-in score a few weeks ago, right?  

Instead, it was a play well-defended and snuffed out by Van Noy in advance.

Good teams have a knack for making a big play when they need them most.  If this Patriots' team goes on to have the kind of year expected of them, either of the aforementioned plays will be worthy of recollecting.

No matter how bad

Yes, things appear to be a bit brighter today for the Patriots.  Not so much, however, in Indianapolis – where the Colts are coming off a 27-0 thrashing at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars.  

Head coach Chuck Pagano is squarely on the hot-seat in Indy, with accusations flying that his players have "quit" on him and the season.  QB Andrew Luck remains out of the lineup, having suffered a setback with an injured shoulder this past week.  It may not be all Pagano's fault, however.

Tough time for Cleveland's Joe Thomas, outside of his team's misfortune.  Thomas had a record streak of playing 10,363 consecutive snaps for the Browns until he was hurt against Tennessee Sunday.  He tore his left triceps muscle and has reportedly been ruled out for the remainder of this season.  Having played through several torn knee ligaments already, Thomas misses his first career start in 10 years next weekend in London against the Vikings.

And those who can appreciate classic, memorable halftime performances could be in for a disappointment next February.  Or, maybe not?  Justin Timberlake has been invited back to perform at SB LII, 14 years after his part in the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" with Janet Jackson in Houston during the Patriots' win over Carolina in 2004.  

That iconic super-moment resulted in a big fine from the Federal Communications Commission (which was later overturned), and an eventual change in the way we now view games with a 10-second delay between play in real-time and what is presently seen on a TV screen.  

Perhaps, if Timberlake's return coincides with another New England trip to the big game, no Pats fan will care if he "rocks your body" or not?

John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and is in his 25th season as the Patriots' stadium voice.  Currently serving in several media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball locally and nationally for 30 seasons, and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame and RI's Words Unlimited Hall of Fame.

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