Patriots' defense shows it is worthy of respect

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A dominating performance against the Buffalo Bills was always going to be a “yeah, but” for many when it came to the New England Patriots defense.

But how about what the unit did against quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night?

This one leaves no doubt. After some inconsistency early this season, the Patriots proved they have a defense that is worthy of respect, a unit that is capable of holding up its end of the bargain against top competition when it plays up to its potential.

“We always talk about progression. It’s that time of year where you want to see some of those improvements,” said safety Devin McCourty, one of the team’s captains. “When you go against the greats, it’s hard to be perfect, but you got to be close if you want to have a chance to win.”

The Patriots did that against Rodgers, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Meanwhile, McCourty also noted how the defense has had “a lot of guys playing and us doing different things every week" and how “that’s not easy.”

Indeed, what the Patriots did Sunday night was different from the norm, as they played a lighter four-man front. The goal was obvious: By sacrificing girth at the line of scrimmage in favor of more speed, they were almost daring the Packers to run, while at the same time giving them a more vibrant pass rush.

And the rush, unlike any other game this season, was sizzling.

Veteran defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who came on to the field in more obvious passing situations and was relentless, relayed that the focus was on closing the pocket on Aaron Rodgers.

“Just all four guys corral him and don’t let him extend plays by stepping up, or stepping back. He’s a very shifty quarterback,” he said.

The plan might have some carryover to next Sunday’s road game against the Tennessee Titans and mobile quarterback Marcus Mariota, although Rodgers is obviously in a much higher class as a pure passer.

One other positive trend for the Patriots’ defense is its knack for creating turnovers. Defensive tackle Lawrence Guy’s forced fumble on Sunday night was a game-turning play, as the team now has 17 takeaways (11 interceptions, 6 forced fumbles), which is the fourth highest total in the NFL.

“We knew the defense we have,” safety Duron Harmon said. “We know how good we can be.”

They showed it Sunday night, becoming the headline story on a night that was instead supposed to be all about the Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers duel.