There are worse ways to start your day after a victory than a backhanded compliment, and right now the Patriots defense will surely take any kind of improvement they can get. Over the past three weeks, New England’s much-(rightfully)-badmouthed defense went from allowing an average of 32 points a game from Weeks 1-4 to allowing 14 points to the Bucs, 17 points to the Jets, and holding last year’s league leader in points scored (guess who...the Falcons!) to 7 points in garbage time on Sunday.
And oh, by the way, that’s with New England’s starting three corners the past couple weeks checking in as an undrafted rookie from West Alabama, an undrafted second-year man from Auburn, and the new guy, Johnson Bademosi, who couldn’t crack the field on defense for the Browns or the Lions.
We’re not going to lie, it feels more refreshing than cracking into an Octoberfest to go from getting barbecued on defense every weekend to barely letting anyone sniff the red zone. And let’s keep in mind, too, that one of the touchdowns New England’s defense allowed in the Bucs game and the only touchdown in the 28-3 Bowl this past weekend were inarguably in garbage time when the game was already in the bag. That’s good, right?
Sure is. Just one problem, though; you’ve heard the old “sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good”, and to varying extents, the Patriots red-zone defense over the past few weeks has been, well, lucky and good. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell took a look at just how much of an outlier New England’s defense has been since their loss to Carolina, in his delightfully titled “What changed in the Super Bowl rematch and why the Falcons are in trouble”, and, well, per usual, the man has a point:
“What has really helped New England has been a totally unsustainable level of performance in the red zone. Teams have made 11 trips into the red zone against the Patriots over the past three weeks and come away with a total of 31 points, good for a mere 2.8 points per possession. The Pats have allowed four touchdowns and a field goal, but they've otherwise blocked a field goal, enjoyed two misses, stopped opposing teams twice on downs and forced that controversial fumble on Austin Seferian-Jenkins that probably should have been ruled a touchdown last Sunday.”
“Announcers love to fetishize the Patriots' bend-but-don't-break defense, but there isn't much evidence defenses can execute better in the red zone than they do over the remainder of the field on a year-after-year basis. While the Patriots were sixth in the league in red zone performance last season, that was Bill Belichick's best mark in a decade. Even if the Pats were to tighten up inside the 20, they're not going to force fumbles for touchbacks and induce three missed field goals in three weeks.”
Hahaha, remember when longtime Jet Nick Folk joined the Bucs and missed all his field goals against the Patriots and then had to clean out his locker the next day? Good times!
All of the New York hate jokes aside, though, it’s hard not to at least give this some serious thought. Cassius Marsh’s Dikembe Mutombo treatment of the Falcons’ field goal attempt this week deserves all the high-fives it gets, but those field goal misses are the equivalent of finding $20 in your pocket, and that doesn’t happen once the playoffs start unless your team has Blair Walsh (too soon?).
What’ll really be worth watching, assuming Eric Rowe’s groin injury keeps him sidelined for a while, is how the defense can buckle down once the $65 million dollar man Stephon Gilmore recovers from his concussion. One thing I couldn’t stop thinking about as I happily drifted off to sleep Sunday night was “What if Gilmore was matched up on Julio on the only Falcons touchdown of the game? Does Julio even get his hands on the ball? Gilmore’s almost three inches than Butler. Could that have been the difference between a shutout and 23-7?”
On the other hand, whether Gilmore would’ve even been in the same zip code as Julio Jones is an equally valid question...that’s how the “what if” game goes, I guess.