Oh, as the season goes along, the younger players will become more comfortable and improve. And just like every season, the Patriots will expand the package of blitzes and coverages, so they’ll be able to spin the defensive schematic dial in the postseason.
But they probably won’t become an elite unit capable of winning a game on its own.
At least not this year.
You know what? I’m beginning to believe there’s nothing wrong with that. And it has little to do with Tom Brady being the quarterback and a cure-all for any weaknesses the Patriots may have.
This Patriots’ defense is much further along than at this point last season. It’s executing the game plan. And, most importantly, it is developing into a unit that has a knack for coming up with a big play when needed — and multiple players are now capable of that.
And that’s going to take them very far.
The 31-21 victory on Sunday against the Broncos was the latest and perfect example.
The Patriots dialed up blitzes in the first half against Peyton Manning.
And they executed.
The coaches asked the players to clog the middle of the field to take away Manning’s comfort-zone passing, and make him beat them outside the numbers.
And they executed.
The Patriots needed to make plays to get off the field.
The Patriots may never be the prettiest defense to watch — they did allow 345 yards passing, a receiver racked up 188 yards, and the Broncos converted 54 percent of their third downs — but if they keep executing and causing key turnovers, they’re going to be just fine.
“Yeah, [we’ve] made some huge plays there down the stretch defensively,” Brady said. “They’ve been getting turnovers all season. It was very good, complementary football for us today.”
The Patriots came out with a two-pronged game plan against Manning. They knew they would probably not be able to generate sufficient pressure rushing four guys.
And the Patriots couldn’t fall back to their usual play-the-percentages defense — “if the opponent has to go on 12-play scoring drives, and the quarterback has to throw deep outside the numbers, we like our chances” — against Manning. He’s not Jake Locker, Kevin Kolb, Joe Flacco, or Ryan Fitzpatrick.
So the Patriots dialed up as many blitzes in the first half against Manning (seven) as they did in the previous two games combined. The Patriots scaled back the blitzes in the second half (three) with a big lead, but still ended with 10 against Manning on his 43 dropbacks outside of the 5-yard line.
The Patriots blitzed 12 times total in their first four games.
“Each week is different, whatever the game plan is,” said cornerback Kyle Arrington, who blitzed a few times off the edge. “This week we just so happened to run edge blitzes at a high percentage. We were trying to get pressure on him to either get the ball out quick, or ultimately, we want to sack him. Try to put as much pressure on him as possible.”
One of the blitzes paid early dividends when linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes both were added to the regular four-man rush. The running back tried to cut Mayo, but he soared over him to sack Manning for a 7-yard loss on third down.
“We definitely tried to get a little bit of pressure down the middle to get him off the spot,” Mayo said. “He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to do it and you have to try to throw different looks at him and do different things to him.”
The second key for the Patriots’ defense was to take away the inside throws that Manning loves. The Patriots kept the safeties tight (sometimes too tight as both Patrick Chung and Wilson were beat over the top), dropped the linebackers in Manning’s lanes, and even dropped the occasional defensive end into coverage underneath.
The goal: make Manning have to complete the difficult throws deep and outside to beat the Patriots.
“Especially at the beginning of the game, it was raining and everything, the type of conditions we had, it’s easier to make the inside throws,” Arrington said. “Everything they got, we wanted to make them earn. The outside throws, given the game conditions, would be harder. We were really emphasizing the easier, across-the-middle, seams, those type of routes.”
Ras-I Dowling, playing the dime linebacker role that Wilson normally fills, was asked to put his 6-foot-2-inch frame and enormous wingspan in the middle of the field, as well.
“Any throw going to the outside is the harder throw,” Dowling said. “We just stuck to the game plan that coach gave us and it turned out to be a victory.”
Especially as the Patriots built a 31-7 lead, and made some big plays along the way.
Everyone seemed to chip in.
Cornerback Sterling Moore was let down by no safety help on a 43-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas on the first drive, but Moore punched the ball out and recovered the fumble.
Rookie Alfonzo Dennard, active on game day for the first time, broke up a few passes, including a key third-down throw to Brandon Stokley in the second quarter that forced a punt.
Tackle Kyle Love did a great job standing up against two offensive linemen on a surprise third-and-4 run to start the second half. That allowed Rob Ninkovich and Spikes to shut down the play for just 1 yard.
Then Ninkovich went to work with a sack/fumble against Manning in the third quarter, and a punch-out fumble from running back Willis McGahee on the Broncos’ final possession with 3:48 left.
“I knew I was capable of making some big plays and being a guy that you can count on,” Ninkovich said. “The first couple of weeks I didn’t feel that I was playing my style and the way I would like to play. I felt the last couple weeks I’ve been trying to change some things.”
Going back to defensive end from linebacker has been a little bit of a process for Ninkovich, but he’s turned the corner with three turnovers the past two games.
“Rob was huge today for us. Can’t speak enough about that,” Arrington said. “But you never know who will step up for us. That’s the good thing about this defense, we’re all capable of making plays at big moments.”
That’s what we’re starting to see. Combine that with improved execution, and the Patriots can do some things on defense.
It might not be great things for the unit. But it could very well be good enough to do great things as a team.