One week didn’t change a great deal on the stat sheet, but anyone who watched the New England Patriots systematically dismantle the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night knows that the defense seemingly mired in a free fall is finally trending upwards.
Was it merely a mirage, or has the much-maligned unit turned the corner for good?
Even after limiting 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan to 233 yards passing – 76 of which, or roughly one third, came on Atlanta’s final drive of the game trailing 23-0 – New England maintains its place at the bottom of the list in both total defense at (426.7 yards per game) and pass defense (310.3).
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The Falcons appear to be a mess and still not fully recovered from the devastation of Super Bowl LI. Nevertheless, it’s now three weeks and counting that the Patriots have held an opponent to 17 points or fewer. After having the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL season ago, New England jumped from 30th to 23rd after the 23-7 win on Sunday Night Football.
Curiously, the Patriots have made the leap without two of their top three cornerbacks healthy.
Johnson Bademosi was inserted into the starting lineup against the New York Jets two weeks ago following injuries to Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe ahead of him on the depth chart. After not playing a single snap on defense through the first five weeks of the season, Bademosi has played in 96 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps over the last two games.
Much of New England’s struggles in the early going were chalked up to miscommunications in the defensive backfield. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said in his weekly conference call on Tuesday that the sign of a really good unit working together is one that can recognize mistakes on the field and self-correct them, and that’s what’s happening with the Patriots right now.
“A lot of those corrections you see during the week where those guys are talking about plays, a lot of it happens during the game,” Patricia said. “For the most part I think those guys are trying to get it corrected before they’ve got to come over and deal with me on the sideline, but those guys do. They work really hard to get that done. Sometimes there’s just looks where it happens too fast and we’ve got to go look at the picture and get it fixed at that point, too. So it’s just kind of a combination of all of that. It might be pass game. It might be run game. It’s just all different looks so it comes up in different facets – run, front, back end, things like that.”
Rowe was acquired by New England in the middle of the 2016 season, while Gilmore signed here as a free agent in March. Bademosi wasn’t acquired until training camp was over this past summer on Sept. 2.
This isn’t to say the Patriots are actually better off without Rowe or Gilmore, particularly the latter so soon into his five-year, $65 million deal. Gilmore had his best game as a Patriot against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 5, playing a pivotal role in limiting Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans to five catches for 49 yards.
Gilmore hasn’t played since, but he did return to practice today for the Patriots.
But Gilmore’s return was sullied by the absence of defenders Dont’a Hightower and Malcom Brown, neither of whom was present for the media portion of practice this afternoon. Each player suffered seemingly minor injuries in the Falcons game.
New England will need all hands on deck on the defensive side of the ball this week against the red-hot Los Angeles Chargers, who have won three games in a row after starting 0-4. As Bill Belichick said on Wednesday morning in his weekly press conference, L.A. could easily be 6-1.
Each of the Chargers’ first two losses can be at least partially traced back to since-released kicker Yougnhoe Koo. The rookie had a 44-yard field goal blocked with 5 seconds left in L.A.’s 20-17 loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 1 and missed a 44-yard field goal outright, also with 5 seconds left, in a 19-17 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 2.
Longtime Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers continues to put up numbers, as he’s currently ninth in the NFL in passing yards per game with 259. He’s thrown for six touchdowns and just one interception during the team’s three-game winning streak.
“I see Philip Rivers being Philip Rivers,” Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy said of why L.A. is clicking. “I think [running back] Melvin Gordon has gotten better each and every week. They’ve got an explosive receiving group and an [offensive] line that’s playing really good football.”
Rivers is 1-6 against New England (including the postseason) in his career and has never beaten Tom Brady head-to-head; his lone win came in 2008 against the Matt Cassel-led Patriots. He’s thrown nine touchdowns against nine interceptions against Bill Belichick defenses, though Rivers hasn’t faced New England since the 2014 season.
“He loves the game of football,” Van Noy said in his praise of Rivers. “He’s passionate about it. He’s really accurate and he wins games. He does whatever it takes to win…he scratches, crawls, does whatever it takes to win. He’s really good.”
The Chargers serve as the final test for the Patriots before halfway point of their season, which also marks their bye week. New England has been 6-2 or better through eight games every year since 2013, and 5-3 or better every year since 2003.
Kickoff on Sunday is at 1 p.m. in Foxboro.