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New England Patriots Will Go As Far As Defense Allows

Via wbur.org
That is the sound of the collective exhale of Patriots nation. After back to back uninspiring efforts, the New England Patriots restored some semblance of order with a destruction of the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. This type of performance is encouraging, but it's still just one win. The team has played two great games at home, and two not so great games on the road. There's still a lot of football to be played, and a lot to be learned about this team.

The Pats looked much better on both sides of the ball on Sunday, but it was never the offense I was worried about. They are going to figure things out; especially with the return of Julian Edelman, and the further integration of Josh Gordon. It's going to be about the defense. They don't have to be as dominant as they were this past Sunday. The play has to be somewhere in between what it was against Miami, and whatever it was that happened in Detroit.

It feels odd to say, but the performance of the defense will ultimately dictate just how successful this season ends up being. We saw first hand in last year's Super Bowl that Tom Brady could have a career night, and sometimes it won't be enough. Now, more often than not, if Brady puts up the numbers he did in the Super Bowl, the Pats are going to win that game. However, Brady is not going to put up those type of numbers every week. At the end of the day, it may come down to the offense to go and win the game, but they'll only get that opportunity if the defense keeps them in it.

How do they do that? Stopping the run, pressuring the quarterback and getting off the field on third downs. 

The Patriots executed better in all of those areas against the Dolphins. They put some pressure on Ryan Tannehill. They stuffed the run. Open field tackles were made, and guys weren't running free. The few completions that Tannehill did make, the Patriots defenders swarmed to the ball. The defense was much more physical, and played with a lot more energy. The team was much better on first and second down, forcing the Dolphins offense into third and longs; an uncomfortable spot for them. 

Then finally, for the first time since opening day, the Patriots were able to get off the field on third down - much to the delight of the season ticket holder who sits in front of me. The third down defense was outstanding. Miami converted on just three of eleven attempts. 

Now, Miami doesn't exactly possess what you would call a good offense. It's very "gimmicky". They utilize their speed guys with a lot of misdirection, jet sweeps and quick throws. Then, they'll take a shot downfield with Kenny Stills. They are not built to play from behind, even more so when it's a double digit deficit. That was on full display last Sunday.

Again, it was only one week, and against a mediocre offense at best, but the play of the defense and the presence of Trey Flowers isn't a coincidence. He is New England's best defender and we've seen how different that defensive line is when he is out of the lineup. In the two games he missed, it was as if the Patriots were counting to 10-Mississippi before they rushed the quarterback. They played with much more physicality and emotion in the two games with Flowers.

Jason McCourty is another guy who has caught my eye; he has been a pleasant surprise so far. After an underwhelming preseason, some felt that his spot on the roster wasn't a guarantee. However, in the absence of Eric Rowe, McCourty has filled in nicely alongside Stephon Gilmore. He's allowed some catches, but it feels like the coverage is always tight. As a matter of fact -- though the sample size is small -- he has the lowest QB rating against amongst Patriot defensive backs. Rowe could be relegated to the slot position when he returns, which wouldn't be a terrible thing. That would actually be a pretty solid crew. 

The best is yet to come in terms of opposing offenses. Matchups with Aaron Rogers, Kirk Cousins, Pat Mahomes and Ben Roethlisberger are still on the horizon. That's when we will really learn about the capabilities of this defense. 

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