Given some of their struggles and inconsistencies this season, there has been an understandable hesitancy to say this for a few weeks now, but the New England Patriots defense might be legitimately good.
The unit has allowed 17 or fewer points in four of its last five games. New England’s defense held the Minnesota Vikings — who are no offensive schlubs — to just 278 net yards, 183 yards through the air and 95 yards on the ground in their 24-10 win.
Minnesota owns perhaps the NFL’s best 1-2 punch at wide receiver in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs (who was banged up), but the Patriots held those two receivers to 10 catches on 15 targets for just 77 yards and a touchdown.
None of this is a guarantee the Patriots’ defense can dominate an elite offense in the postseason. But they seem to have taken major strides since the beginning of the season.
The Patriots’ secondary has been surprisingly solid this season, and when they can get some pressure after the quarterback, they’re good at forcing mistakes, too.
Let’s go a little deeper into Sunday’s win with our takeaways.
All stats via Pro Football Focus.
SS Patrick Chung: three catches on three targets for 57 yards
CB Jason McCourty: 7-9, 38 yards, TD
CB Stephon Gilmore: 4-4, 25 yards
CB JC Jackson: 4-7, 23 yards, PBU
FS Devin McCourty: 4-5, 18 yards
LB Dont’a Hightower: 4-4, 17 yards
CB Jonathan Jones: 1-2, 9 yards, INT
LB Kyle Van Noy: 3-3, 8 yards
SS Obi Melifonwu: 1-1, 5 yards
LB Elandon Roberts: 1-2, 1 yard
FS Duron Harmon: 0-1, INT
— Gilmore continues to dominate against top-notch receivers. He shadowed Diggs and noted after the game he really only let up one catch. Diggs’ other receptions against Gilmore were on screens.
— Here’s what Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had to say about the touchdown Jason McCourty let up. Devin McCourty was helping out in coverage on the play:
“I know that we gave up a touchdown to Thielen that was really — we screwed that up. We ran into him on the coverage. It wasn’t Jason’s fault. We just didn’t execute the play very well.”
Jason took the blame for the touchdown after the game, though.
— Chung hasn’t been himself this season, and it seems a little telling that the Patriots are mixing in Melifonwu in coverage on tight ends at times. We’ll see if Melifonwu’s snaps start to increase. Chung saw a slight reduction in snaps.
— Jones played just two snaps after struggling in Week 12. He made the most of them.
— They might be “slow,” but Hightower, Van Noy and Roberts all were good in coverage Sunday.
— Jackson is the perfect player to take on No. 3 wideouts and make plays while Gilmore and McCourty take out the top options. Jackson forced Harmon’s interception with a pass breakup.
DE Trey Flowers: sack, two hurries
DT Lawrence Guy: two QB hits, hurry
LB Dont’a Hightower: QB hit, two hurries
DE Adrian Clayborn: two hurries
DT Adam Butler: sack
LB Kyle Van Noy: QB hit
LB Elandon Roberts: hurry
DE John Simon: hurry
— Oh, weird, Flowers led the team in pressures again.
— Guy doesn’t usually bring a ton of pressure, but he did a nice job against the Vikings’ cruddy interior offensive line.
— Hightower has been better as a pass rusher in recent weeks.
DT Malcom Brown: two stops
DE Lawrence Guy: two stops
LB Elandon Roberts: one stop
LB Dont’a Hightower: one stop
SS Patrick Chung: missed tackle
DE Adrian Clayborn: two missed tackles
— The Patriots struggled a bit to stop the run. They let up 7.3 yards per rushing attempt, and it’s not as if the Vikings have been good on the ground this season.
— It seemed like the Patriots encouraged the Vikings to run by making Danny Shelton a healthy scratch. They only wound up running the ball 13 times, however.
LT Trent Brown: QB hit, hurry
C David Andrews: hurry
RT Marcus Cannon: hurry
TE Rob Gronkowski: hurry
— Among players who stayed in to pass block, left guard Joe Thuney, right guard Shaq Mason, running backs James White, Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel and offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle didn’t allow pressures.
— Credit is due to Brown and Cannon. Vikings edge rushers Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen are among the league’s best.
— Brady did a nice job of getting the ball out quickly.
— Among Tom Brady’s eight incompletions, one was thrown away and one was dropped.
— Wide receiver Julian Edelman had the drop.
— Brady was 1-of-1 for 29 yards on deep passes. Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson caught the lone deep pass.
— Brady completed just 2 of 5 passes for 32 yards when he was under pressure. His touchdown and interception came while pressured.
— Brady got rid of the ball in an average of just 2.22 seconds. His average on the season is 2.5 seconds. Brady had the fastest release time in the NFL this week.
— Josh Gordon caught three passes on three targets for 58 yards with a touchdown. Brady has a 119.8 passer rating while targeting Gordon this season. Pretty good.
RB Rex Burkhead: 2.43 yards after contact per carry
RB James White: 2.17 yards after contact per carry, one forced missed tackle
WR Julian Edelman 2 yards after contact per carry
WR Cordarrelle Patterson: 2 yards after contact per carry
RB Sony Michel: 1.59 yards after contact per carry
FB James Develin: .25 yards after contact per carry
— I feel like I blacked out during the game because I can’t remember the Patriots rushing for 160 yards. It didn’t feel that way, right?
— Michel and Burkhead both ran for less than 4 yards per carry. The Patriots picked up 41 yards on three carries by wide receivers Julian Edelman and Patterson.
— Patriots running backs grinded it out for over 100 yards.
For more grades, advanced statistics and more at Pro Football Focus, go to ProFootballFocus.com.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports