It can finally be said: The Patriots’ defense is legit.
Sure, the defense just gave up 23 points and 457 yards to the Falcons. But that’s to be expected against a team that features Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White. And the defense was looking a lot better until a faulty replay system handed a reception to Jones, some poor onside-kick coverage gave the Falcons the ball at their own 48-yard line and a fumbled snap from Tom Brady gave Atlanta the ball at the Falcons’ own 38.
But even after giving up a ton of yards in the fourth quarter, the Patriots won. And they were able to make a stand when the game mattered most. The offense didn’t bail out the defense, and the defense didn’t bail out the offense. This was a team game — reminiscent of what made the Bill Belichick Patriots special in the early 2000s.
New England’s defense was able to get it done without big Vince Wilfork, who was lost midway through the first drive of the game. Joe Vellano, Chris Jones and Tommy Kelly filled in admirably for the nose tackle, who has looked hurt through the first three weeks of the season anyway.
There aren’t any glaring weaknesses to this defense. The starting cornerbacks are solid (Aqib Talib is spectacular), Devin McCourty is a great deep safety, the linebackers can stuff the run, get after the passer and occasionally cover, and the front four can hold their ground against running backs and get into the backfield in pass rush.
While it looked like the team may have trouble defending the run early in the season, the Patriots held Atlanta to just 58 yards on 15 carries. That’s an admirable effort against some tough running backs who were able to gouge a tough Miami defense last week.
The defense obviously had some tough moments against Atlanta. The defense vowed to take away Jones and White, which led to a wide open Gonzalez throughout the first three quarters. Then, when the plan was to take away Gonzalez, Jones was left free.
But on the final play, with 38 seconds remaining, Gonzalez was jammed at the line by a tandem of Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo. Jones was double-covered on the left side of the field, and Talib was left to blanket White, which he did. Ryan should have known what he was getting into when he threw Talib’s way.
The shutdown cornerback (yes, he’s earned it) had already deflected three passes and pulled in an interception. Ryan’s pass came to the right side of the end zone, high enough for White to have to jump up and over Talib. But Talib reached over with his left hand, knocking the ball out and onto the turf.
Talib earned himself some money with that deflection, having done it on prime-time television, no less. But those are the kind of plays this team makes these days. The Patriots are making stands when they need them. They’re scoring points when they have to. And that’s without key players, whether it’s Wilfork on defense or Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski on offense.
Talib has four interceptions on the season now. Three of those have come in the fourth quarter — a telling stat, since it encapsulates this defense well.
The storyline went that the Patriots had to stop the Falcons to earn it — to earn respect, to earn a crown, a title, a 4-0 record. They won. They earned it. Even if they gave up 457 yards and 23 points in the process.