The New England Patriots have a potentially great defense just waiting to emerge from below the surface. Mere weeks after ranking 32nd in the league in almost every facet, the defense has made strides and are a respectable 22nd in points allowed per game.
And while the secondary was banged up with Stephon Gilmore or Eric Rowe, and while the run defense was missing Elandon Roberts, everyone else stepped up to the occasion against a potent Atlanta Falcons offense.
If Sunday night was any indication of what the Patriots defense is capable of accomplishing, then the sky is the limit for this team. The offense will figure out its red zone issues and will start to produce and any defense that only allows 7 points in a game is doing a great job of staying competitive.
And let’s give a lot of props to the Patriots defense.
Patriots 1st down defense really stepped up
For the first six weeks of the season, the Patriots defense allowed 7.65 yards per play on first down, easily the worst mark in the league; the Indianapolis Colts ranked 31st and allowed 6.66 yards per first down play. The Patriots defense often found themselves in a bind because opposing offenses were generating early yards and having easier conversion opportunities.
So it’s impressive that the Patriots forced the Falcons and their high-powered offense to come out flat. Over the first half of the game (excluding the garbage-time, clock draining final drive), the Patriots held the Falcons to 3.56 yards per play on first down, with 24 of those yards coming on two plays.
For reference, the Pittsburgh Steelers were allowing an average of 4.01 yards on first down entering week 7, easily the best mark in the league. The Cleveland Browns were second with 4.45 yards per first down.
This early success on first down allowed the Patriots defense to force the punts they were struggling to generate over the first few weeks of the year. If they can continue to play at such a high level early in games, it will allow the Patriots offense to build up a lead and dictate the script of the game.
Patriots 3rd down defense was outstanding
The Falcons started the game failing to convert on their first 5 third down attempts and they were 1 for 7 on third and fourth downs combined in the first half. Their only conversion was a scramble by Matt Ryan on 4th-and-7 where the officials could’ve thrown a holding call against the right tackle on Cassius Marsh (but it led to a Ball Don’t Lie moment as Marsh blocked the ensuing field goal attempt).
Ryan converted the Falcons first third down attempt of the second half, but then Atlanta failed on their next three third and fourth down attempts, thanks in part to...
LB Kyle Van Noy is blossoming before our eyes
Kyle Van Noy, have a day. Van Noy led the Patriot defense with seven solo tackles, including these two huge stops. The return of Dont’a Hightower has been excellent for Van Noy, who is emerging as a great complementary piece.
Over the past four weeks with Hightower back, Van Noy has 3.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and an additional quarterback hit. He’s really hitting his stride and the improvement of the Patriots defense could be linked directly to Van Noy’s emergence.
CB Johnson Bademosi making strong case for playing time
Bademosi recovered the blocked field goal and he also played extremely solid defense all night long. He wasn’t perfect by any means- he was fortunate the officials didn’t flag him for defensive pass interference on one third down- but he was extremely competitive and he exceeded all reasonable expectations.
In fact, it’ll be hard to keep him out of the line-up with the defense playing so well. While Stephon Gilmore will likely get his job back- he was last seen erasing Mike Evans from the game- the Patriots have to be thrilled about having depth at cornerback again.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Bademosi leap-frogged Eric Rowe in the depth chart and started to play more as the #3 cornerback moving forward. Bademosi has speed, too, and he could eat away at Jonathan Jones’ time, too, although Jones had a great day of his own.
Red zone offense
Yes, the Patriots are still scoring a lot of points. Yes, they’ll figure it out. But the Patriots are still leaving a lot of points on the board in the red zone and it’s worth noting. The Patriots reached the Falcons red zone on the final six drives of the game (with one of them resulting in Tom Brady kneeling the football to clinch the evening). Of the five drives with scoring attempts, they only earned two touchdowns.
They left 12 points on the field by settling for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns and they’ve been leaving points on the field all season. After the Patriots finally got Brandin Cooks involved in the red zone- he scored on his first and only red zone target all season- the Patriots gave 9 of their next 10 touches to running backs on screens, dumps, or handoffs.
That’s not entirely strategy of a team trying to score touchdowns on a given play- that’s the strategy of a team trying to get close to the goal line so a running back can punch it in from the 1-yard line.
The Falcons did a good job of containing Rob Gronkowski for most of the game and they focused on taking away Gronkowski, Cooks, and Chris Hogan in the red zone and Brady will always look for the one-on-one instead of forcing the ball to a player.
But let’s hope offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gets a little more creative over the second half of the season and that he’ll find other ways to get Cooks and company involved.