Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Patriots' defense stands up
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The case of those seeking to discredit the performance of the Patriots' defense to this point is one that's easily made by looking at the competition.
In each of the first two weeks, New England has faced a team that starts a rookie quarterback, that is integrating a new offensive coordinator and that is generally not expected to be very good this season. All three are legitimate considerations when looking at what the Pats have really achieved thus far on that side of the football.
However, so, too, are the names of the quarterbacks this same Patriots team has at different times made look more-than-capable over the past couple of seasons: last year the list included the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mark Sanchez and Chad Henne; Fitzpatrick and Henne were on the list the year before that, as well, joined by Jason Campbell, Vince Young, Dan Orlovsky and Rex Grossman.
Of those names, not one is currently an NFL starter. Some of them weren't even starters then, but rather pressed into the role by injury. Yet since the start of 2011 they've combined for 11 contests in which they've thrown for more than 300 yards against New England.
So simply taking care of business, and succeeding against the unimpressive - or at least the inexperienced - is a sign of progress for the Patriots' defense. Obviously the real indicators will come later, courtesy of Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and a few other above-average quarterbacks. But with two wins and a pair of solid performances to their credit, at a minimum there appears reason to be encouraged about the direction the unit is moving.
"Two weeks in a row we came up big, and it's good for the defense, it's good for the team, especially for once to see the defense go at it and finish a ballgame," lineman Vince Wilfork said after Thursday's 13-10 win over the Jets. "It's just a good start for us."
That start has seen the Pats allow a total of 604 yards from scrimmage in two tilts, about 71 yards fewer than their per-game number last season, and 45 yards fewer than the league average in 2012. As a team they've allowed 31 points, though the defense has allowed only three touchdowns - one of which required Buffalo to cover only 37 yards after a New England turnover - and it has done a good job of getting off the field.
That 37-yard drive was the Bills' second-longest of the opener, then Thursday night the Jets moved the ball 33 yards or less on 10 of their 15 possessions (five of which netted zero or negative yardage). With that, the typical possession for Patriot opponents this season has lasted just 116 seconds and 4.6 plays, while gaining only 20.8 yards.
Quick, short drives help the offense by giving them more opportunities and better field position - and with the Patriots offense in a state where it'll take all the help it can get, that's a trend that'll aid New England greatly if it can continue.
"I'm happy that we were able, the defense, to go out and make a few plays to win the game for us. That's the way it's going to have to be - and I'm happy, I'm fine with that, I'm good with that," said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. "As a defensive player we're confident enough that when we're on the field our job is to create turnovers and get our offense the ball as many times as we can."
"We've made winning plays," safety Devin McCourty added, "and we have to continue to do that."
The winning plays Thursday were three fourth-quarter interceptions of rookie Geno Smith, two of which were caught by cornerback Aqib Talib, who also forced a fumble in the first quarter. Through two games the Pats have prompted six turnovers, suggesting what's typically the unit's greatest strength is again among its traits.
They've now recorded a turnover in 29 straight games, while ranking in the NFL's top three in takeaways each of the past three seasons. And so if they can continue that while validating the improvement evidenced over the first couple contests, a building process three years in the works could finally be complete just at the time the Pats need it most.
"Could," of course, remaining the operative word until the competition gets a bit better.
"Over the years our offense has bailed us out so many times," linebacker Jerod Mayo said Thursday. "It's good to get a win like this."
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As the Patriots' level of competition stiffens, and the caliber of quarterback they're up against improves, it will be interesting to watch how the Patriots use their personnel - particularly considering that even against Smith and Bills' E.J. Manuel the club has relied heavily on the nickel defensive set.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes has played less than half the Pats' snaps to this point, removed in favor of using Alfonzo Dennard as a fifth defensive back. That begs the question: If New England is playing that way against two rookies who generally lack weapons among their wideouts, how much will it use its 4-3 base look against the likes of Ryan, Brees and Manning?
In his contract year, and after working specifically on becoming a three-down 'backer throughout the offseason, Spikes may not like the answer much.
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On three of the Patriots' 11 punts Thursday, the Jets opted to not have anyone deep to return the kick. Rex Ryan explained after that each time he was looking to try and block the punt, partially thinking the wet weather and the inexperience of Pats' rookie punter Ryan Allen might create an opportunity - but also partially in deference to the tremendous coverage ability of New England special teams ace Matthew Slater.
It says everything about how good he is in that role, and why his name hardly ever comes up in respect to roster cuts even though his contributions are limited only to special teams.
"We weren't getting a whole lot in the return game," Ryan said. "That Slater kid is a heck of a football player, and so I was like, 'Hey, might as well go for it.'"
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.