Back in January of 2004, the Patriots put on one of the most incredible defensive performances that fans have ever seen, shutting down a high powered Indianapolis Colts offense that had been averaging nearly 40 points per game during the regular season.  In that game they completely stifled Peyton Manning and company, holding them to a measly 3 points in what to this day is one of the more memorable efforts fans in New England have ever witnessed.

It’s been a long time since they’ve been that dominant, and while it’s obviously a little early in the year to get overly excited considering their competition, New England’s defense is starting to resemble some similarities to the groups of players that helped them win championships.


Tommy Kelly and the Patriots defense are getting it done so far this season. (USA TODAY Images)

They’ve already made history, having allowed 34 points on the season which is the second best three-game start to a season in franchise history.  The team posted a stat on Sunday which pointed out that the last time the team started off a season giving up so few points was back in 1979, when they gave up 33.  You can make the argument that it’s been against woeful teams like the Buffalo Bills, the New York Jets, and obviously the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the key point that can’t be overlooked is the fact they did what they’re supposed to do.  Good teams beat up on bad teams, and after their struggles at times last season it’s hard not to appreciate the fact they’re getting it done so far this season.

So far they’ve allowed just two passing touchdowns, which came back in week one against the Bills.  They haven’t allowed one since, shutting down both the Jets’ Geno Smith and yesterday Josh Freeman.  For a secondary that couldn’t seem to stop anyone last year, they’ve been much more cohesive so far and have started off much better than last season.  They allowed plays of over 30 yards in four out of their first five games in 2012, but have only done so once this year (week two against the Jets) and didn’t allow any yesterday.  The more impressive part of that is the fact they faced their first quality receiver of the year in Vincent Jackson and Aqib Talib shadowed him all afternoon, holding him to just 3 catches for 34 yards.

They’ve also tightened up in the red zone since week one.  Against the Bills E.J. Manuel was 2-of-2 with two touchdowns, but since then they’ve held opponents to 1-of-9 passing with no touchdowns.

Meanwhile, against the run, they’ve been just as tough.  They’ve allowed just six runs of over 10 yards so far this season, with Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly having been pretty incredible inside so far this year.  Looking at the numbers, it’s tough not to appreciate how well they’ve performed through the first three weeks.

Here’s quick look at the rushing stats by distance:

Opponent rushing:

Runs of 1-5 yards: 59
Runs of 6-10 yards: 14
Runs of 10-20 yards: 6

The stat that clearly stands out is the fact they’ve held opponents to runs of 5 yards or less on 75% of the positive gains they’ve allowed.  Yesterday they held Doug Martin to just one carry over 10 yards, with 14 of his 20 carries being of 5 or less yards.

Belichick said after the game he was pleased with what he saw, and hopes it continues next week in Atlanta.

“I thought we did an O.K. job today,” said Belichick after the game.  “We played good in the red area, that was big, keeping them out of the end zone.  But next week we’ll have a new set of challenges so we’ll just have to do everything well against Atlanta.”

We’ll find out in the coming weeks as the competition gets better if this is an aberration or a trend, but if it’s the latter there’s reason to feel optimistic about their future. So far they’re off to a great start, and it’s going to be interesting to see as the season progresses if this team has finally started making progress toward becoming a group that may help this team get back to a championship level on that side of the football.

GRONK’S SETBACKS ARE ARM, NOT BACK RELATED:

A slightly alarming note from NFL Network analyst Ian Rapoport, who reported yesterday that the reason tight end Rob Gronkowki wasn’t ready to play was an issue that was “more with his arm than his back.”  That’s disturbing considering all the setbacks he’s suffered have been due to the arm he broke last year against the Colts.  At this point in the season the Patriots are heading into what will be one of the more difficult stretches they’ll face this season, with games against Atlanta, Cincinnati, and New Orleans upcoming.  So far this season they haven’t seen much production at the tight end position, with Michael Hoomanawanui being the only one so far with a reception.  Brady’s had zero luck connecting with Zach Sudfeld so far this year, having targeted him three times without a completion and has ended up throwing an interception on two of them.  Needless to say they need Gronkowski to get healthy, but it doesn’t sound like he’s quite there yet if his arm is still bothering him after all this time.

FORMER PATRIOTS QB HOYER HAS BIG OUTING SUNDAY VS MINNESOTA:

It’s been a rough stretch for former Patriots back up quarterback Brian Hoyer, but the Cleveland native got a start on Sunday for the team he grew up rooting for and he made the most of it.  Hoyer finished the afternoon 30-of-54 for 321 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-27 win over the Vikings.  It wasn’t perfect, as Hoyer did throw three picks, but it was a performance that should at least give Browns fans something to believe in.  After all, Hoyer is one of them, and after getting an opportunity to start for the team he’s loved for so long, the odds are pretty good he’ll continue to work as hard as he can to help them put some more wins together before it’s over.

NUMBERS YOU MAY NOT HAVE KNOWN:

– Tom Brady Extended his touchdown streak on Sunday to 51 straight games, closing in on the record of 54 held by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

– So far this season when facing 3rd-and-more-than-10 yards, opponents are 0-for-10 converting against New England’s secondary.  To take it a step further, when facing 3rd-and-7 or more, opponents are just 3-of-21 converting against them.

– Julian Edelman extended his third down reception streak on Sunday, now having been targeted eight times with eight receptions.  He’s converted 5 of them, including two touchdowns.  He currently leads the team with 27 catches for 201 yards.

– Aaron Dobson is now second on the team in receptions and is tied with Danny Amendola with 10 catches, 4 of which have come on third down and all of them were first down grabs.

– Kenbrell Thompkins has been the most targeted receiver in the red zone for the Patriots this season, having been targeted six times with three receptions including two touchdowns.

– Bill Belichick now has 208 wins, one away from tying Chuck Noll’s record of 209.

ON TO THIS MORNING’S LINKS:

BOSTON HERALD:

Patriots rookie wideouts shine – Dan Ventura – Ventura writes that the “kids were all right” in the Patriots win over Tampa Bay on Sunday.

Extra prep time pays dividends as Patriots start to look familiar – Ron Borges – Borges writes that the Patriots overcame a slow start and the offense finally started to look what we’re used to seeing during yesterday’s win.

For Patriots, it all starts with stops – Karen Guregian – Guregian has a good article this morning on the defense, who she writes did a good job of holding on both third and fourth down on Sunday.

Best & Worst of Patriots-Buccaneers game – Mark Daniels – Daniels has his best and worst from Sunday, and writes that the first two drives were the worst impression of an improved secondary for the Patriots.

Tom Brady, offense look better as defense stifles TB – Jeff Howe – Howe writes that the team continues to measure their success by their weekly progress, and they’re coming together just in time to face a tough stretch of games that begins on Sunday in Atlanta.

Rob Ninkovich earns 3-year, $15M deal – Jeff Howe – Howe files his notebook this morning which leads off with notes on the fact Ninkovich landed a new deal just hours before kickoff.

Golden one for Brandon Bolden – Mark Daniels – Daniels has an article on Bolden, who was excited to be back on the field on Sunday.

BOSTON GLOBE:

Once again, the Patriots defense rules the day - Michael Whitmer – Whitmer writes that yesterday’s performance by the defense shows that this group is getting more and more confident by the week.

Patriots’ Brandon Bolden impresses in first appearance - Seth Lakso – Lakso has an article on Brandon Bolden, who made his first appearance for the Patriots on Sunday but had a productive afternoon.

Patriots’ Rob Ninkovich given 3-year extension - Michael Whitmer – Whitmer has an article on linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who recently received a contract extension from the Patriots.

ON FOOTBALL: Tom Brady, young receivers start to connect – Ben Volin – Volin has a good column this morning and even has comments from Aaron Dobson’s father in this piece, who talked about how he handled some of the comments his son received from Brady.

Patriots move to 3-0 with win over Buccaneers – Shalise Manza Young – Manza Young writes that while it took a quarter for some boos to start raining down on the Patriots Sunday afternoon, the offense finally overcame their ineptitude to remain unbeaten.

Tougher tests to come for the Patriots - Christopher Gasper – Gasper has his column this morning and writes that we won’t know for a few more weeks how good this team is, but it’s mathematically impossible for them to be better than 3-0 at this point.

ESPN BOSTON:

Talib helps Patriots’ defensive plan pay off - Mike Reiss – Reiss writes that Talib’s performance helped the Patriots defensive plan work as planned on Sunday.

Defensive snaps: Jamie Collins in sub – Mike Reiss – Reiss looks at yesterday’s snap totals and gives some excellent analysis on what went down defensively.

Offensive snaps: Even split at RB – Mike Reiss – Reiss looks at the offensive snap totals and notes that running backs Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden saw even playing time Sunday.

WEEI:

Believe it or not, Record-Setting Patriots D Need Not Apologize – Mike Petraglia – Petraglia writes that if you didn’t believe in the Patriots defense before, you should now.

What we learned: A false start or real step forward for rookie receivers? – Christopher Price – Price has his weekly, “What We Learned” column and writes that Kenbrell Thompkins had little to say about himself after Sunday’s win and praised the entire effort of the team.

Darrelle Revis on Patriots Rookie Wide Receivers: ‘They Are Improving’ – Ryan Hannable – Hannable has an article with comments from Darrelle Revis, who said yesterday the Patriots got them with a few plays where Brady sold the play action “very well” and executed the play.

EAGLE TRIBUNE:

Time to see how good Pats ‘D’ really is - Bill Burt – Burt writes that the “gimmees are officially over” and we’ll find out over these next few weeks how good this defense.

Rookies Thompkins, Dobson show playmaker promise – David Willis – Willis has an article on the receivers, and caught a glimpse of the two footballs in Kenbrell Thompkins’ locker that had tape on them representing the two touchdowns he made on Sunday.

WORCESTER TELEGRAM:

Patriots’ young receivers show progress in win over Bucs – Jennifer Toland – Toland writes that Brady didn’t hide his frustration with his rookies during last week’s game against the Jets, and his anger hasn’t been lost on his first year targets.

Patriots pitch complete game to beat Bucs – Rich Garven – Garven writes that Sunday’s win wasn’t a total effort, but it was a team one after the Patriots overcame a slow start to beat the Buccaneers.

Brandon Bolden a big hit in return to Patriots – Rich Garven – Garven has his take on Bolden’s performance on Sunday, who he writes was eager to dole out some punishment on would-be tacklers.

Patriots’ Aqib Talib clamps down on Vincent Jackson – Jennifer Toland – Toland looks at the performance of Talib, who she writes was “up for the challenge” against Jackson on Sunday.

Stephen Gostkowski boots 3 field goals for Patriots – Jennifer Toland – Toland has an article on Gostkowski, who got a little redemption by his performance on Sunday.

 

ATTLEBORO SUN CHRONICLE:

Syncing feeling – Mark Farinella – Farinella writes that, “there probably should be a little perspective injected into the euphoria over the New England Patriots’ 3-0 start.”

PATS NOTEBOOK: Gostkowski quietly has good day – Peter Gobis – Gobis files his notebook this morning and writes that kicker Stephen Gostkowski was happy with his performance on Sunday.

SOUTHCOAST TODAY:

Pats’ solid D mostly smoke and mirrors – Andrew Tornetta – Tornetta writes that on the surface, the Patriots defense appears to have taken the proverbial next step, but this early season schedule has merely “put lipstick on a pig”.

SENTINAL & ENTERPRISE:

After an easy start, Patriots’ real test is still ahead - David Pevear – Pevear writes that Bill Belichick’s team is 3-0 and there’s no extra credit for big wins and that picky fans and media in New England need to embrace the victories instead of focusing on the negative.

BLEACHER REPORT:

Buccaneers vs Patriots: Takeaways from New England’s 23-3 Win over Tampa Bay - Mike Dussault - Our good friend Mike Dussault has his takeaways from yesterday’s game, including the fact the Patriots found their running game on Sunday.