Patriots

How good is the Patriots’ defense really?

New England has a top-5 defense in terms of yards per game allowed.

Patriots linebacker Matt Judon (9) celebrates after recovering a fumble on the last play of the game against the Houston Texans. AP

COMMENTARY

The Dallas Cowboys amassed 515 total yards Sunday in their 44-20 win over the New York Giants. 

The over/under for Sunday at Gillette Stadium might start at 750.

Poor Stephon Gilmore probably had to resort to some sort of balm as badly as his ears had to be burning during the first 30 minutes of his former team’s afternoon in Houston. The Patriots’ secondary made Texans rookie Davis Mills — who had a grand total of 87 passing yards during a 40-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills a week earlier — looked like much more than a guy who was owned in 0 percent of your fantasy leagues. Buoyed by long drives that ate up the clock and a Patriots defense more defined by its confused alignments than anything else, the worst team in the NFL* took a 22-9 lead, and everybody was ready to pounce on the coach for getting nothing more than a throwaway draft pick for a former Defensive Player of the Year. 

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Then, a funny thing happened. The Texans went and punted into their own player’s head, and the message was pretty clear. The Patriots, as bad as they looked for stretches on Sunday, weren’t going to lose to a team that managed that

So, instead of a 1-4 bottom-dweller, the 2-3 Patriots find themselves still amidst the discussion of teams that can possibly find a way to tread water through the final 3/4 of the NFL season. On the one hand, they’re in the same boat as the defending AFC champs, the 2-3 Kansas City Chiefs. On the other, they’re no better than the 2-3 Atlanta Falcons. 

The fact that the Patriots are, currently, a top-five defense in terms of yards per game allowed (317.6) isn’t indicative of the team that waltzed into Houston and realized around halftime that it was going to carry the stigma of creating the Davis Mills highlight reel. It wasn’t exactly a cozy feeling knowing that the Cowboys, the same ones who ate up and spit out the pathetic New York Giants in Dallas a few hours later, were going to be the next test for a defensive backfield that was now led by J.C. Jackson. The same J.C. Jackson that Mills treated like Tom Brady greets Ryan Clark. Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott (second in the NFL in completion percentage — 73.9) should have a field day this coming weekend. 

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Then again….As horrific as the Patriots defense looked in the first half against the Texans, it rebounded with a shift in personnel, resulting in shutting down whatever attack the Texans had magically conjured in the first half. That allowed Mac Jones, the Patriots offense, and a controversial roughing the passer call to complete a 25-22 comeback victory.

New England’s two wins this season come against the Jets and Texans, who are a combined 2-8. The Texans, Miami Dolphins, and Jets, along with the Chicago Bears, are the four worst teams in terms of offensive points per game this season. The Patriots have played three of them thus far. The top three are currently the Buffalo Bills (34.4), whom the Patriots have yet to play this season, the oncoming Dallas Cowboys (34.0), and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (33.4), a team the Patriots were a doink away from knocking off. 

If his team’s performance against the Bucs, limiting Brady to 261 passing yards, was, in fact, the credence that led to Belichick finally cutting ties with the disgruntled Gilmore, it looked like a decision ready to blow up in the coach’s face. Yet, here we are, five games into a 17-game season, and the Patriots have allowed only 206.6 passing yards per game, fifth in the NFL. They’re in the middle of the pack when it comes to their porous run defense (111 yards per game), but the addition of Jamie Collins, not to mention presence of instant fan-favorite Matthew Judon, might mean a certain consistency is growing back there. 

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Despite the hiccup Sunday afternoon in Houston, there has to be some whisper at least that the Patriots defense is on the verge of being considered one of the elite units in the league. Two weeks after quieting an offensive attack that put up 45 points against the Dolphins, the Patriots are in charge of silencing another that put up 44 more. If that’s a task the Jalen Mills and friends can prove to handle once again, then we can start considering this defense good enough to battle for a postseason slot down the stretch. 

Sunday’s start was one hell of a way to get to that conclusion, but credit where it’s due. The Patriots are either showing signs, or we’re just desperately trying to look for them. 

Because you can’t count on every team to punt into its own players every week. 

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