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The Keys to New England's Improved Defense

via Boston Sports Journal
The New England Patriots kicked off the second half of their season with a sixth consecutive victory Sunday night, and while many fans are excited by the performance and continued improvement of Josh Gordon, the play of the defense is the bigger development coming out of that game. 

The defense continues to turn a corner as the unit posted its second strong performance in as many weeks. They did what was expected of them against the Buffalo Bills, and built upon that with an impressive showing against the Green Bay Packers. Before the game, I think you would have been hard pressed to find somebody who thought the Patriots would hold Green Bay to under 20 points. 

While the overall defensive performances the past two weeks show signs of improvement, there a few specific drives/plays that stick out as an indicator of just how much this defense is improving. 

It's hard to take anything away from the Monday night game in Buffalo. That Bills offense might quite honestly be the worst I have ever seen. However, with the offense sputtering early in the second half, the Pats were forced to punt from their own endzone, holding a 9-3 lead. A strong return had Buffalo set up at the Patriot 35 yard line. The crowd came alive recognizing the golden opportunity in front of them. 

The Bills managed to gain 2 yards on the next three plays, highlighted by a great individual play from Flowers, and had to settle for a 51 yard field goal. Bad team or not, a short field is a short field. The momentum of the game was leaning towards Buffalo and a touchdown there would have altered the entire complexion of the game. The defense came up with a big stop at a key point in the game.

Most recently, this past Sunday the defense had their share of crucial plays. Obviously, the forced fumble by Lawrence Guy inside the redzone was clutch; and the combination sack by Flowers and Adrian Clayborn on a key 3rd down in the 4th quarter were key. Yet the sequence that impressed me more came midway through the third quarter. 

Green Bay had just tied the game at 17, but the Patriots offense was ready to answer. A strong drive had them at first and goal from the one...the freaking one yard line. They had four plays to gain one measly yard. After runs on first and second down went for no gain - one of which was initially ruled a touchdown and overturned - the Mr. Hyde side of Josh McDaniels took over. 

I like McDaniels, and I think overall he is a great coordinator and play caller. Not in this particular situation. On third down, the Pats inexplicably put Brady on the move, having him rollout to his right looking to throw. You could have given me 50 opportunities to predict that play, never would I have guessed Brady would be rolling out. If Brady is going to be on the move inside the 5, it should be on a QB sneak. 

The play went as expected and then on fourth down, Brady never had a chance as Green Bay brought pressure and forced a quick throw. Talk about a momentum swing. Not only had the Packers scored on their previous possession, but followed that up with a goal line stand. Sure, they took over backed up against their own goal line, but they had a real chance to seize control of the game. 

Instead,  The Pats defense took the momentum right back by forcing a three and out. New England ended up punting on the ensuing possession, but that defensive stop was a sneaky big sequence in the game. Had Green Bay turned that drive into points, things could've gone south for the Pats. Instead, the defense came up big when they needed to against a great quarterback and a good offense. 

As a unit, the defense appears to be leaving its early season struggles behind. At the center of this defensive turnaround are Trey Flowers and Stephon Gilmore. 

We've seen strong play from Flowers in previous seasons, but this year feels like his coming out party. Maybe because it's a contract year. Whatever the reason, Flowers has become a real problem for opposing offenses. He is slowly becoming that guy you can't block 1 on 1. He's not racking up the sacks like an elite pass rusher, but he has been highly disruptive.

Going back to that key drive in the 3rd quarter of the Buffalo game. On second and ten, Buffalo tried to block Flowers with Logan Thomas. Thomas is 6 foot 6 and about 250 pounds. On that play, Flowers obliterated him. He just tossed him to the side and brought down LeSean McCoy for a three yard loss. He had some similarly impressive individual efforts against the Packers this past week. If he can get to the point where teams feel the need to double team him consistently, that may take this defense to the next level. 

Gilmore meanwhile is making quarterbacks seriously second guess throwing his way. Quarterbacks are still foolishly throwing at him, though not as often. He has the second most passes defensed in the league with 13, already more than he had all of last year. His performance against Davante Adams Sunday night was his latest in a string of impressive performances. Adams had recorded 130+ receiving yards in his last 3 games before Sunday. Gilmore held him to a season low 40 yards. While he may not be as outspoken and brash as the elites often are, Gilmore plays with the necessary swagger of a number one cornerback. He's come a long way from the start of last season.

As Flowers and Gilmore go, so goes this defense. It's no surprise that two of the worst defensive performances this year came with Flowers on the sideline. He is the heart and soul of that front seven. If these two continue their strong play, this defense is only going to get stronger down the stretch.

If Flowers becomes that guy who demands extra attention, it's going to create opportunities for guys like Clayborn, Deatrich Wise and others to pressure the quarterback. If Gilmore continues to lockdown opposing receivers, he may deter quarterbacks from looking his way; which can shrink the amount of space the offense has to operate.

New England will need another strong defensive effort this weekend in Tennessee. The Titans offense isn't necessarily potent, but they do have a strong defense. They have allowed the fewest touchdowns in the league, despite Malcolm Butler's efforts to allow one on every play, and are tops in the NFL in points allowed per game.

The New England offense is playing well, but they are still working out some issues, mainly caused by a lack of personnel. They may get Sony Michel and Rob Gronkowski back this week, but I'd still expect some offensive lulls in the game. It's on the Patriots defense to hold strong during those lulls and keep the Pats in the game. 

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