Rare have been the occasions over the past six or seven years that the Patriots have gone into a game asking their defense to win it for them. By and large — but for the season the star quarterback lost to injury — they take the field each week needing the defense to at least be adequate, while trusting that Tom Brady and the offense will take care of the rest.
Tonight, however, the script flips. Tonight the defense that's been building toward this level of responsibility for a couple of years gets the chance to show that it's capable of carrying the club, not necessarily because of the challenge that'll be put to them by the Jets, but because Brady's bunch is so banged up there may not be another option if New England is to beat New York at Gillette Stadium.
"We're very excited about it as a defense," Vince Wilfork said Sunday of the continuity within the unit, which has the burly lineman and captain looking forward to an opportunity like the one he and some of the other veterans have been awaiting for a while now. Routinely after games, Wilfork and others have professed their confidence in the Patriots' progress and personnel on that side of scrimmage, regularly stating a belief over the past couple of years that the collection is better than their mediocre numbers might suggest.
And now they get a chance to prove it by shutting down rookie quarterback Geno Smith and a Jets attack that's bereft of elite talent at the skill positions and is sorely lacking playmakers.
Smith can do some things with his legs, but the Jets' two running backs (Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory) combined for only 44 yards on 22 carries in the opener against Tampa Bay. Their leading receiver that afternoon was Kellen Winslow Jr., the aged tight end whom the Patriots got rid of after one game when they signed him last season, and their second-leading pass catcher, Jeremy Kerley, has been ruled out tonight with a concussion.
Against the Bucs, the Jets managed just a single touchdown, that coming when an interception required that they cover only 31 yards before going in. And while that, a safety, three field goals and a boneheaded personal foul penalty on the Bucs with a few seconds to play was ultimately enough for an 18-17 victory, the flaws of the Jets offense were far more readily apparent than any reasons to fear it.
And so if the Patriots defense is ready to take that next step — ready for the responsibility of winning games on its own — it should be able to contain and control its competition.
It should be able to cover for an offense that'll be missing Shane Vereen, is likely to be missing Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, and is still trying to incorporate a trio of rookie wide receivers as it goes up against a New York defense that played pretty well against Tampa. In that game, the Jets held Doug Martin, a quality back, to 2.4 yards per carry, and also allowed Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman to complete less than 50 percent of his passes. Combining those two factors, they yielded just 250 yards of offense — fifth-fewest in the NFL for the opening weekend.
So they'll come in with confidence against a group that is full of question marks. That matchup doesn't bode particularly well for a team accustomed to relying on its offense to run wild, and that may struggle to get out of the teens tonight after scoring at least 20 points in 38 of its last 40 regular-season games.
But that doesn't have to mean a loss if the Patriot defense can prove that it's ready to win.
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OVERRATED: Rex Ryan's scheming vs. Brady. Over the past few days it's been said that the Jets' coach historically gives Brady a hard time schematically by varying up his gameplans and approaches. That may have been true while Ryan was the defensive coordinator in Baltimore, or during his first two seasons in New York. But in the last five meetings — since the defensive talent at Ryan's disposal has decreased — the Pats have scored an average of 38 points per game, Brady's thrown for at least 321 yards four times, his touchdown-to-interception ratio is 13:1 and his lowest passer rating was 95.2.
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UNDERRATED: New England's running back depth. Vereen is a big loss, as both a runner and a receiver. And Stevan Ridley's fumbles make him somewhat unreliable. But in LeGarrette Blount and Leon Washington, the Patriots still have two other options in the offensive backfield who have had success at the pro level and can be dangerous in a variety of ways. Blount is a bruiser who can burn when he gets into space, and Washington is capable of catching the ball out of the backfield. By maximizing those two and Ridley, the Pats should be able to plug on even without Vereen.
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KEY MATCHUP: D'Brickashaw Ferguson vs. Chandler Jones — The Bucs got to Smith for five sacks last week, one of which resulted in a fumble when he tried to get outside the pocket and throw. It'd be a big advantage for the Patriots to make the quarterback uncomfortable, and that's exactly what Jones was drafted to do.
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STAT OF THE WEEK: As flawed as they seemed, the Patriots finished the season's first week as one of only two teams ranked among the NFL's top 10 in both yards gained (seventh) and yards allowed (ninth). The other is the Texans, who also won via a last-second field goal.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.