Don’t let the ongoing Antonio Brown circus distract you from just how well the Patriots gelled defensively last Sunday.
In limiting the Pittsburgh Steelers to a measly field goal in a 33-3 laughter, New England has now gone two straight games dating back to Super Bowl LIII without allowing a touchdown.
It’s a new season, with only seven out of 11 players who started vs. the Los Angeles Rams in their same role on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Brian Flores is out, Jerod Mayo is in as the team’s de facto defensive coordinator.
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But the fact that something clicked right from the get-go, in a season in which so much is expected from the unit, is an encouraging development. It’s a far cry from the season opener in 2017, when New England’s defense gave up 42 points – the most ever by a Bill Belichick-led Patriots team – as the Patriots foreshadowed what was to come months later in Super Bowl LII.
For context, New England last went back-to-back games keeping opponents out of the end zone in Weeks 15 and 16 in 2016, when they limited the punchless Denver Broncos and New York Jets to a field goal each (the starters in those games? Trevor Siemian and Ryan Fitzpatrick, the projected starters for each of the next two opponents for the Patriots this season).
Those, of course, were mediocre teams playing out the string. The Rams were the No. 2 offense in the NFL in 2018 both in terms of yardage and points, while Ben Roethlisberger led the league in passing yards a season ago.
New England didn’t even have linebacker Kyle Van Noy at their disposal vs. Pittsburgh due to the birth of his son. Even with Van Noy absent, newly-minted captain Elandon Roberts played only 10 special teams snaps against the Steelers.
“He’s very physically and mentally tough,” Bill Belichick noted of Roberts. “It’s a long season. We have a lot of football. I’m sure he’ll play a lot of football.”
In their stead stood Shilique Calhoun, an Oakland Raiders castoff who joined the Patriots in May. Making the first start of his four-year career, Calhoun’s 55 defensive snaps played on Sunday were fourth on the team behind only the McCourty twins and Stephon Gilmore.
The insertion of Calhoun into the starting lineup underscores more than anything else just how deep the Patriots are at every level defensively.
“He was here all through the spring, all through training camp, had a good training camp,” Belichick said of Calhoun. “Good start to the preseason, but he’s been a solid and dependable player for us in the running game, the passing game, and the kicking game. So, we’ll see how it goes. Hopefully he’ll be available for us.”
Don’t sleep on a revamped rush defense, either. Playing out of a base 3-4 defense to open the season, New England held the Steelers to a measly 32 yards on the ground on 13 carries (2.7 yards per carry). The Patriots were 29th in the NFL last regular season in giving up 4.9 yards per rush.
“It’s been a fun group to work with,” Patriots defensive line coach Bert Bielema said earlier this week on a conference call. “You know, they really do buy into the philosophy that they just come into work every day, do what they’re supposed to do.”
Part of the low number for Pittsburgh is due to it being behind in the game early, forcing Roethlisberger to drop back 47 times. Even so, the Steelers punted on each of their first four possessions.
With the quite-possibly immortal Fitzpatrick, as well as the less-so Siemian next up on the docket, don’t expect these promising defensive trends to change anytime soon for the Patriots.
For better or for worse, it could be quite some time before we see New England’s defense stifle a worthy opponent. Josh Allen, who had four turnovers in Buffalo’s Week 1 win over the Jets, still hasn’t figured it out after finished dead last in the NFL in completion percentage (52.8) as a rookie in 2018.
Case Keenum epitomizes average for Washington, and while Eli Manning conjures up ghosts of heartbreak’s past, he himself is nothing more than a ghost at this point who may not even be starting when the Giants come to town in Week 6.
While the offense finds its groove with Brown, the defense will be holding up its own part of the 19-0 bargain.