Patriots Have Top 10 Passing Defense, But First Real Test Comes Against Matt Ryan, Falcons

Kyle Arrington, Mike WilliamsThe Patriots have a Top 10 defense.

Let’s all just let that sink in for a few seconds.

OK. Not only do the Patriots have a Top 10 defense, they have a Top 10 passing defense. They’re allowing just 188.3 yards per game. Opposing offenses have thrown for just two touchdowns (second in the NFL) to four interceptions (seventh). They have allowed a first down percentage of just 27.2 (fourth), and teams have just eight plays of more than 20 yards against them (sixth) and zero over 40 yards (first). Their completion percentage against is an astounding 50.5, which ranks just below the Jets’ 47.3.

Needless to say, the Patriots have come a long way from last season, when they ranked 29th in passing defense, allowed a first down percentage of 34.8 and gave up 74 plays of more than 20 yards.

Of course, it helps that they have faced two rookie quarterbacks and a fifth-year signal caller who is completing just 45.7 percent of his passes. But the Patriots are actually forcing those crappy quarterbacks to play even worse.

Opposing quarterbacks have a 58.7 quarterback rating against New England (second best in the NFL). EJ Manuel‘s quarterback rating on the season is 86.5, Geno Smith‘s is 65.0 and Josh Freeman‘s is 59.3. Smith had his worse game by far against the Patriots, and Freeman was kept out of the end zone for the first time this season.

The Patriots’ defense won’t be on the cupcake diet all season, though. In just six days, the Patriots travel to Atlanta to take on Matt Ryan and the Falcons. In the next three weeks, they will also be forced to go up against Andy Dalton and Drew Brees. It’s entirely possible this Patriots defense is not who we think they are.

New England has faced some of the worst. Now it’s time to see what the Patriots have against the best. And it’s not just tough quarterbacks that the Patriots will be tested against. They will be challenged by Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez next week, followed by A.J. Green in Week 5 and Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston in Week 6. Perhaps expectations of a Top 10 defense need to be tempered.

Aqib Talib has allowed just 81 of the 565 yards the Patriots have given up through the air this season. Opposing quarterbacks are throwing at a 41.7 clip against New England’s No. 1 cornerback. Those impressive stats will be put to the test in the next three weeks, especially if Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia (or Matty P as Talib calls him) force Talib to shadow the toughest receivers from Atlanta, Cincinnati and New Orleans.

Going against Ryan and the Falcons will either be a wake-up call for the Patriots or the rest of the NFL. If Ryan, Jones and White are able to march down the field against New England, the Patriots will know their passing defense is far from the elite unit it has appeared to be so far. If New England is able to stop Ryan like it has halted Manuel, Smith and Freeman, though, the rest of the league will be on watch.

While it seemed nearly impossible that New England’s pass defense would be this good way back in Week 8 of the 2012 season — when Sterling Moore was still the team’s No. 3 cornerback — a Nov. 1, 2012, trade may have changed the tides.

That’s when Belichick decided to pull the trigger on acquiring Talib. The cornerback still had one game to serve on a four-game ban for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. But once he got on the field against Indianapolis, New England’s defense was able to shift.

Devin McCourty was able to move to free safety full time, Alfonzo Dennard had already been starting outside, and Kyle Arrington was able to shift over to the slot. The team now had three starting-caliber corners and a free safety that could flawlessly patrol center field.

It’s no surprise that the unit looks even better this year after a full offseason together. Defensive backs regularly talk about communication being a key to success. Every player is not on his own island on a football field. Defensive backs need to know where the others will be on every play. While there does still appear to be some miscommunication this year (like on Robert Woods‘ touchdown in Week 1), those moments are few and far between compared to last year.

That’s why it’s not a gigantic shock to see a Top 10 passing defense in New England. Whether that holds up as the competition gets better remains to be seen. What’s obvious, though, is that the bottom-tier unit of recent years past is gone. To cop a phrase from Rick Pitino, “Antwaun Molden‘s not walking through that door, fans. Nathan Jones is not walking through that door. Sergio Brown‘s not walking through that door.”

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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