Patriots’ Defensive Playmakers Are Finally Emerging, Forcing Turnovers When Team Needs Them Most

By the first Sunday in February, Patriots fans may be laughing at how much time was wasted worrying about the defensive unit.

On Thanksgiving, the New England defense carried the Patriots to victory. That seems hard to believe given the first 10 weeks of the season, but it’s true. It was thanks to five forced fumbles — four recovered — and an interception that the Jets game got out of hand so quickly. On this particular day, Brandon Spikes, Vince Wilfork, Devin McCourty, Alfonzo Dennard and Steve Gregory each forced fumbles, while Gregory also picked off Mark Sanchez.

The Patriots’ plus-24 turnover ratio is no mistake. The Patriots are specifically being taught to go for turnovers.

So there may actually be some method to the Patriots’ defensive madness. For weeks, we’ve been wondering: “Why is no one covering the shallow part of the field? Why are tight ends so wide open? Why are the Patriots’ defensive backs giving so much space to the players they’re supposed to be covering?”

At a certain point, it might actually be a better idea to get the ball in the opponents’ hands with this team.

With players like Spikes and Rob Ninkovich — each tied for third in the NFL with five forced fumbles apiece — roaming around the field, the chances at a forced fumble are much greater than with a typical team. Adding ball hawks to the secondary like Dennard, Gregory and Aqib Talib has also helped tremendously. There’s nary a game that goes by that Dennard doesn’t get his hand on the ball at least once, whether that’s picking the ball off, diving for a deflected pass or forcing a fumble. In fact, the 23-year-old Nebraska product has six deflections, three interceptions and one forced fumble in seven games so far. What Dennard may lack in elite speed, he makes up for in his hands, instincts and aggression.

Lately, it’s been tougher to find non-playmakers on the Patriots’ defensive squad than the big play guys. Vince Wilfork is known for his big plays, typically caused by his insane agility. Ninkovich is good for one big play a game, whether it’s  a sack, strip sack or recovery. Spikes’ big hits are forcing turnovers — and concussions — left and right. McCourty already has three picks and two strips — not to mention his exciting ability on kick returns. Gregory showed how great he can be at being around the ball Thursday with his two fumble recoveries, interception and forced fumble. Talib showed his big-play ability last Sunday with his 61-yard touchdown. Rookies Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones have been coming up with key sacks this year, and even reserve Jermaine Cunningham is constantly drawing holding calls or hitting the QB.

The only names not mentioned there who play big roles in the Patriots’ defense were Jerod Mayo, Kyle Arrington, Kyle Love and Patrick Chung. Mayo is the most consistent player on the Patriots’ defense, and even if he doesn’t come up with huge plays, he leads the NFL in tackles and can be found cleaning up other players’ messes more often than not. Arrington and Chung have made big plays in the past when they were given bigger roles — look no further than Arrington’s seven interceptions last season. And Love isn’t asked to make big plays as a nose tackle. His job is to eat up space.

The concept of a “bend but don’t break” defense has been laughed at for a few years now. But when a team can make plays when it matters most, it can work. Of course, relying on turnovers may not always pay off. Turnovers by and large aren’t very consistent game to game, especially when playing the best teams in the league. But there’s also a reason why the Patriots lead the next best team in turnover ratio by 12. Having Tom Brady helps, too — he “leads” the league with just three interceptions — as does a coach who will have no problem benching a running back for turning the ball over.

Bill Belichick‘s scheme, strategy and personnel moves can be questioned from time to time, but perhaps more than any other coach in the league, he understands that turnovers can change a game. That’s how the Patriots scored three touchdowns in less than a minute against New York on Thanksgiving.

Belichick is wise to take a conservative approach on offense while taking more risks on defense. It’s all about avoiding and causing turnovers.

The Patriots may not have the fastest linebackers, the best defensive line at rushing the passer or the best defensive backs in coverage, but they know how to stay around the ball. They’re being taught how to force turnovers and, most importantly, it’s working. The Patriots are 8-3 and have some real tests in front of them. If they keep up their plus-24 turnover ratio, they should pass those tests.

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