FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots defense is putting things together at just the right time.
The unit’s performance in Sunday’s 24-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings -- and how it limited NFL leading receiver Adam Thielen to five catches for 28 yards and one touchdown -- has the players feeling good about what they’re building toward entering the final four games of the season.
“When you look at our defense, one thing that we pride ourselves on is coming in and not letting your best guy beat us,” said safety Devin McCourty, one of the team’s captains. “The guy has [had] almost 100 yards in every game, so that’s a win. I thought, as a group, just great execution against a guy that we knew was going to be tough all game.”
This is the identity of the Patriots’ defense.
Whereas other units around the NFL are known more for constant pressure, or blazing speed, the Patriots under Bill Belichick have always been a unit that morphs into different shapes on a weekly basis thanks to their versatile parts. They are also a fundamentally sound tackling group.
That doesn’t necessarily create a “wow” factor like other teams, but it’s smart football, reflective of one of the smartest coaches in the game who has overseen a seamless transition in 2018 with future-NFL-head-coach-in-waiting Brian Flores taking over the playcalling from Matt Patricia.
Take, for example, how differently the Patriots played over the past two weeks.
In a Nov. 25 win over the New York Jets, they focused on a bigger base defense that played a 3-4 alignment to take away the running game. The idea was to make the Jets go away from their strength, forcing them out of their comfort zone by throwing the football at an unusually high rate. It was successful.
Then in Sunday’s win over the Vikings, there was was just one snap played in the base defense. It was all sub packages – a 3-3-5 nickel in which the fifth defensive back was either a safety (against multiple tight ends) or a cornerback (against three receivers) -- with heavy attention paid to Thielen in coverage. In obvious passing situations, there were times with just one down lineman on the field, with some dynamic blitzes, and disguise that confused quarterback Kirk Cousins.
“It’s just a lot of guys buying in and understanding that it’s not just one position here or just one thing you’re doing on this play," said lineman Trey Flowers, one of the unit's best players who played 3-technique (over the guard's outside shoulder) against the Jets, before returning to more of his natural end position against the Vikings "If they give us a different look, we can change it up. A lot of guys are just on top of the game plan and the playbook. When you have a lot of guys that are smart enough to learn different things, you can do things like that and be effective.”
As Flowers said, the scheme doesn't mean much if there aren't talented players to execute it.
Along those lines, the secondary is playing well with cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones leading the way, while safeties McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon and Obi Melifonwu are doing their part.
The linebackers are holding up their end of the bargain, with Elandon Roberts' hit on the opening play against the Vikings being credited by players as a tone-setter. The hard-hitting Roberts is joined by Dont'a Hightower and hybrid end/outside linebackers Kyle Van Noy and John Simon.
"Our defense, the way they played yesterday, it's going to be tough for anyone to come to Foxborough and win," quarterback Tom Brady said Monday in his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI. "They really locked in. I could see it all week. They had a lot of different, confusing looks for the offense. They played their butts off."
With games against Miami, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and the New York Jets, the unit has a chance to continue to fine-tune things heading into what they hope will be a deep playoff run.
"We just have to stay on top of it and continue to climb," Flowers said. "I think a lot of guys are coming together and just want to get better. We understand the urgency we have now. Now it’s time for real football and to be on our A-games."