FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots’ defense has improved. Is it a championship defense -probably not. But the Pats don’t need to have a great defense to win a Super Bowl. They need a respectable defense and it looks they have one.
With four of the remaining seven games against the lowly AFC East, the Pats defense has seen the best offenses it will face this season and it has survived. The style of the defense in the BillBelichick era has always been bend but don’t break. In recent years, at times it has broke.
Yes, the Pats gave up almost 400 yards of offense – but it was giving up only 17 points to an Aaron Rodgers-led offense that will make them sleep well Sunday Night into Monday morning.
Bill Belichick, however, once said that stats are for losers and the final score is for winners. Well, the Pats prevailed 31-17 Sunday Night to win their sixth straight game after starting 1-2.
What improved Sunday Night was the pass rush. The pass rush was disappointing early in the season and the secondary had to cover for longer period of times. Now, the secondary knows there will be a pass rush late in games to execute what the Pats defense has preached all year – play complimentary football.
The Pats signed Adrian Clayborn to rush the passer in the offseason and Sunday Night it felt like he finally earned the money he was paid in the offseason. Clayborn had a big sack late in the game that he shared with Trey Flowers. Some of the reason for the pressure to be fair was that the Packers scheme has become defunct with few options for Rodgers to throw short so ifyou take away his deep stuff then the Packers are sunk.
The Pats by my unofficial count had about 20 pressures – the most Green Bay (per ESPN stats) had given up all season.
There is still debate about whether Flowers is a good or great player. But Flowers is improving as he enters free agency in the offseason. Sunday Night also showed the difference between the Patriots and Packers. When adversity hits, the Patriots fight through it and the Packers fold.
The turning point in the game came when the Packers were driving with game tied at 17 in the second half. It was time for Green Bay to finally have a big win this season. Instead, Lawrence Guy chased down running back Aaron Jones from behind to force the fumble.
The Pats then went on a 10-play touchdown drive to take a 24-17 lead. A late Josh Gordon touchdown made it 31-17. For once, the Pats defense had to help out the offense. Something the great Tom Brady appreciated.
“The defense played spectacular and 17 points against that offense is great,” Brady said. “You know, that’s a tough offense to defend. I mean he (Rodgers) could fit the ball into a lot of tight spots. They got off the field on third down, they were great rushing — I mean, it just looked likethey (the Packers) had to work for every yard and I know when they’re working for every yard it’s a good night for our defense, So, it was a great team win.’’
The Pats offense scored a touchdown on their opening drive — then went dormant for a long period of time as it scored only 10 points more until the fourth quarter. The defense kept them in the game. The Pats did an excellent covering Packers receiver Davante Adams, who had onlysix catches for 40 yards. Stephon Gilmore showed why he is a top corner with his play against Adams for much of the night.
The Pats conceded the slant with Adams to stop the outside routes. After struggling in the first half with covering tight end Jimmy Graham, who had three catches for 40 yards, the Patriots did a lot better in the second half. Graham caught a 15-yard touchdown drive on the opening drive of the second half and did not have a catch the rest of the way.
Randall Cobb had only 24 yards receiving and Rodgers was running for his life for a lot of the second half.
Except for 51-yard and 26-yard Rodgers completions to Marquez Valdez-Scantling, the Pats gave up few if any big plays. It was a big difference from Sunday Night against the Chiefs when the Pats gave up 31 points in the second half and the Chiefs had the ball for only 10 minutes.
Belichick was impressed with the play of Rodgers thinking that his defense had perfect coverage on the great plays to Valdez-Scantling.
“Aaron made a couple of throws there to Valdez that were just unbelievable plays,” Belichick said. “We are all over them — one on the sideline and one on the over route. I don’t know how the coverage could have been much better than it was.
“Being a great player, he made plays. Those are the type of plays you gotta live with. We just kept competing.”
“I thought we did a good job of rushing him,” Belichick continued on Rodgers. “He has such a presence in the pocket. He had to make some throws with the line closing in on him so he didn’t get to make the type of throw hewanted to. Rodgers is a hard guy to get. We had him in on a lot of plays, but he is just so good. I thought our guys did about as good of a job as they could do. He is just tough.”
As for why Sunday Night was the Pats best night rushing the passer of the season, Belichick said, “Hard work, preparation, good technique and good technique in the game — being able to transfer it from the practice fields to the game situations. Those guys had a good plan. We made a couple of adjustments to our rush plan in the second half. Our safeties gave us a couple good disguises in there too. There is no short cut to it.
“It’s not like just drawing a couple carrots on a page — you gotta goout there and compete. I thought even the times he (Rodgers) got out, we had him pretty good, not good enough for him, but we had the right idea.”
There were other positives for a team that has won six straight games like the improved play of Malcolm Brown against the run, a 2015 first round pick, who was generally considered a disappointment.
Brady, who passed Peyton Manning for all-time (regular and post season) passing yards Sunday Night, was exhausted as he stepped to the podium having played two games in six nights. Brady, though, acknowledged the obvious.
“7-2 is a long way from 1-2,” Tom Brady said.
The Pats will enjoy this win for a night and that it is on to Tennessee.
Then, at last, a bye week.