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Patriots defense picks up right where it left off last season

Related: Patriots’ newly unveiled offense has encouraging debut against Miami

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

It may not have been the historical start of 2019, but the New England Patriots’ defense is still among the league’s best even after a series of offseason departures — Sunday’s victory against the Miami Dolphins only reaffirmed this thought. The group allowed just 11 points and 269 yards against its division rivals, and followed a familiar formula in order to stay ahead of the curve at all times: winning the turnover and third down battles.

Last year, New England was outstanding in both areas. The 2019 Patriots, who ended up as the number one scoring defense in the NFL, registered 36 takeaways and also allowed just 24.1 percent of third downs to be converted. While they ranked second in the turnover department behind the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 38, the third down percentage clearly was the best in the league and a big reason for the unit’s sustained success.

So, how did the Patriots fare in both areas against Miami? Again, very well.

The first drive of the game already set the tone. The Dolphins had two straight runs to set up a 3rd-and-4, but cornerback Stephon Gilmore tackled DeVante Parker short of the sticks on the ensuing pass play. Two drives later, after the home team had taken a 7-0 lead on a Cam Newton touchdown run, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year was in the spotlight again when he intercepted Miami quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

“That’s one thing we preach every day — to turn the ball over,” said Gilmore during his media availability after New England’s 21-11 victory. “We had a lot of turnovers. I think we played pretty good, but I think we still have a lot of work to do. We left some plays out there and we’ve got to study the film, learn from the film, and move on to next week.”

After Gilmore registered the first third down stop and turnover of the season, the rest of the team followed suit. Safety Adrian Phillips, playing his first game since arriving in New England as a free agent earlier this offseason, had an interception late in the second half. Cornerback J.C. Jackson added a third and final pick late in the fourth quarter to effectively ice the game in the Patriots’ favor.

Along the way, New England allowed just four of 11 third down attempts to be converted for an offensive success rate of just 36 percent.

One way or another, the Patriots defense was able to get off the field and give the ball back to a time-controlling offense that focused on running the football and shortening the game. The three takeaways in particular, however, were the main storyline for the unit coming out of its season opener.

“It’s huge, something we talk about every year — year-in, year-out,” said safety Devin McCourty about his teammates’ interceptions. “If we can take the ball away it will help us get wins. And today, winning the turnover battle is really what led us to victory and is something we got to keep a heightened awareness out each week. Going out there and just attacking a football. It’s never easy in this league but you have to catch the ones that come to you, and have to just apply pressure whenever someone’s carrying anything.”

Ja’Whaun Bentley, who is serving as the team’s defensive signal caller following the offseason opt-out of fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower, also spoke about the importance of turnovers. And just like Gilmore and McCourty, he also acknowledged that getting them is a predetermined goal for the group entering every contest.

“I mean, you always hope you always hope to get turnovers as a defense. It’s always a goal to get as many as we can,” said the third-year linebacker. “Today we got three. We just love to keep striving to try to improve and continue that trend.”

This focus on improvement is one repeatedly mentioned by the team’s players after Sunday’s game — no matter if aligning on the defensive side of the ball, or on an offense that also had an encouraging start to the season. Gilmore, who was his usual stout self in coverage but also was flagged twice for pass interference, mentioned how the team still has some room to get better with just one game in the books.

“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” he said. “We made some plays, we could have done better in some situations. We’ve just got to watch the film and get better. It’s only game one so we’ve got a long season.”