Patriots’ Defense Made Adjustments, Got the Stops When It Mattered

Steve Balestrieri
February 7, 2017 at 9:01 am ET

“They Haven’t played anybody…”

Well, now they have.

The Patriots defense, perhaps the most-maligned #1 scoring defense in NFL history, had its issues in the first half but did what they accomplished so often in 2016. Between Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick, they made their adjustments, played good overall team defense and smart situational football and made the plays at crunch time to allow the offense to make their comeback. The result was the Patriots are gearing up for their Super Bowl parade on Tuesday morning.

Since the halfway point of the season, this is a unit that kept getting better, despite the usual suspects who looked to denigrate everything the team accomplished and marginalize every victory. While the list of opposing QBs was hardly a “Murderer’s Row”, the team focused on getting things right and playing better, regardless of who was lined up opposite of them. And they did.

Allowing the fewest points in the NFL isn’t a fluke after a 16-game schedule, regardless of what some would have you believe. Was the defense, the best in the NFL? No, and no one is making that argument. But they were better than what some would have you believe and no longer can it be said, “they haven’t faced a top QB.”

Points Not Yards are Bottom-line: One can argue all day long about yards allowed, the Patriots will never lead the league in that category. Because their defensive philosophy is such that they’ll allow the short plays underneath because they won’t allow opponents to get the big chunk plays down the field. And they did that in the playoffs again.

In three playoff games, the Patriots defense allowed a total of 54 points. With 16 against the Texans and then just 17 against the Steelers’ offense and 21 against the #1 offense in the league against Atlanta. That’s allowing just 18 points per game.  And the final two games were against some high-powered offenses with Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan.

In the second half of their three postseason games, the defense allowed just 18 points with seven of them coming on a garbage time touchdown by the Steelers. The Falcons scored just seven points in the second half and most importantly none in the fourth quarter.

First Half in Houston was hardly super, but their finish was: Atlanta’s first play from scrimmage was a huge 37-yard run by Devonta Freeman. The play was perfectly executed by the Falcons with outstanding blocking from the offensive line and especially Julio Jones that sprung Freeman on his jaunt to get Atlanta out of a deep hole.

Freeman and Tevin Coleman were very effective in the first half, rushing for 86 yards, which is just 2.6 yards less than the Patriots were allowing for an entire game. But after halftime, it was a different story. Atlanta rushed for just 18 yards after the break.

Freeman ended up with 75 yards rushing on 11 carries which comes out to a stellar 6.8-yards per rush. But after that big run (which coincidentally netted zero points), he carried 10 times for 38 yards. Atlanta had scored on their opening possession for the previous nine games prior to the Super Bowl. That streak ended on Sunday.

So, while Kyle Shanahan is under fire for not running the ball more, especially in the fourth quarter (see Victory-Marginalization Pt1), there was a reason why he didn’t. And a lot of that had to do with the Patriots defense.

In the passing game, Freeman and Coleman combined for just three catches. While two of them were big plays, a 39-yarder to Freeman where he broke a few ankles making people miss and the TD to Coleman where it was another perfectly executed play where Ninkovich was caught up in the wash inside. They weren’t the consistent targets in the passing game that we envisioned Atlanta planning on prior to the game.

Ryan’s Performance Was Outstanding: Falcon’s QB Matt Ryan was the NFL’s MVP this year and his performance on Sunday night showed why that was so deserved. He completed 17-23 for 284 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

But a second look at some of his big throws, especially to Julio Jones shows that the Patriots couldn’t have defended many of those any better. Several of the throws were of the very low-percentage variety that Ryan just threw dimes on. And the plays by Jones on a few of those were just ridiculous.

Rather than find fault with the defense, those were some plays where one must tip their hat to the opposition.

Third Down Defense Outstanding: A key area that the Patriots like to stress with the defense under Belichick is getting off the field on third down. Atlanta only converted 1 of 8 third-down opportunities. They got a second one on a close call on Malcolm Butler who was flagged for pass interference.

But in the second half, the Falcons offense was 0-5 on third down. And that wasn’t against Brock Osweiler and the Texans. Atlanta was the #1 scoring offense in the NFL this season and Ryan was the MVP. Without a solid defensive effort in the 2nd half, there was no comeback in the cards.

“Where are the PlayMakers?” Right Here: Another knock that we constantly hear about the Patriots defense is the lack of playmakers. In reality, it is more about the lack of name recognition than actual playmakers.

When they needed big plays the defense got them. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower who is indispensable to the Pats defense came up with a huge strip sack on Ryan which flipped the game’s momentum to the Patriots.

Facing a 3rd and 1, Ryan and the Falcons were going for the homerun ball, Hightower blitzed off the edge and blew past a very half-hearted block attempt of Freeman and blasted Ryan just as he was about to release the ball. The Patriots took over at the Atlanta 25-yard line and soon scored to make it 28-20 and the Pats were right back in the game. Pay the man.

Trey Flowers continued his outstanding second half of the season with a super performance in the Super Bowl. Flowers led the team with 2.5 sacks of Matt Ryan as they piled up five sacks in just 23 pass attempts by the Falcons’ QB.

None were bigger than his fourth-quarter sack of Ryan which helped push Atlanta out of field goal range. Facing a 2nd and 11 at the Patriots 23, Flowers sacked Ryan for a loss of 12 yards back to the 35-yard line. The next play was a holding penalty on Atlanta that pushed the ball back to the 45-yard line.

There his third down pass was incomplete forcing a punt rather than a field goal attempt and Brady drove the ball 91 yards in 2:33 for his own “John Candy” moment to tie up the Super Bowl.

The Patriots defense held Atlanta’s high scoring offense to just 21 total points with seven in the second half with none in the fourth quarter. They held them to 1-8 on third downs including 0-5 in the second half. I think Ryan and the Falcons’ offense qualify as “having faced somebody.”  It was a tough game but they passed their test.

Now let’s go to a Super Bowl parade…

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

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