Four more takeaways. Two more non-offensive touchdowns. Test this New England Patriots defense at your own peril.
With the Patriots off this weekend, let’s take a closer look at the five biggest defensive/special teams plays from Thursday night’s 35-14 victory over the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium.
JOHN SIMON INTERCEPTION
Giants rookie quarterback Daniel Jones faced a monumentally difficult challenge against the Patriots’ ferocious D, and it took just three passes for him to make his first costly mistake.
On second-and-7 during New York’s second possession, Jones tried to hit Golden Tate — the lone established receiver the Giants had active for the game — on an in-cut. Stephon Gilmore was in coverage on the play, and when Jones threw behind Tate, the All-Pro cornerback capitalized.
Gilmore leaped to deflect the pass into the air, then immediately began blocking Tate — a heads-up maneuver that drove the wideout away from the ball’s landing zone. Simon, who’d feigned a rush off the right edge before dropping into coverage, sprinted to the spot to haul in the second interception of his NFL career.
BLOCKED PUNT TOUCHDOWN
Last season, Dont’a Hightower pancaked a Chicago Bears player to block a punt that Kyle Van Noy returned for a touchdown. Brandon Bolden employed the same tactic Thursday night.
Though Bolden didn’t bowl his blocker over the way Hightower was able to, his bull-rush pushed the Giants’ Nate Stupar nearly 10 yards into the backfield. Riley Dixon’s punt caromed off the back of Stupar’s helmet and shot straight up in the air.
Rookie linebacker Chase Winovich settled under the ball, caught it and waltzed into the end zone for his first career touchdown.
“In punt protection,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, “when you give ground, if you don’t take a stand, then the rushers can run you right back into the punter.”
After not returning a blocked punt for a touchdown in the first 18 1/2 years of Belichick’s tenure, the Patriots now have three such scores in their last 19 games and two in the last three weeks, with Matthew Slater also returning a J.C. Jackson block for six during a Week 4 win over the Buffalo Bills.
DURON HARMON INTERCEPTION
Danny Shelton has been a revelation for the Patriots this season. His relentless pass rush helped force Jones’ second interception of the evening.
As Jones searched for an open receiver on first down, Shelton fought through three separate double-teams to reach the young signal-caller. It took the big defensive tackle a full six seconds to get there, but when he did, he was able to disrupt the throw by smacking Jones’ right arm.
That contact caused the ball to flutter out of Jones’ hands, resulting in an easy pick for Harmon. Simon also provided pressure on the play.
Jones said he was attempting to throw the ball away, but thanks to Shelton, it never reached the sideline.
STEPHON GILMORE INTERCEPTION
One of the main reasons inexperienced quarterbacks struggle so mightily against the Patriots’ defense is their inability to decipher New England’s disguised coverages. That’s exactly what happened on Jones’ third and final interception. He believed the Patriots were in man coverage, so when he saw tight end Rhett Ellison break toward the sideline and gain separation from Hightower, he fired a pass his way.
The Patriots, however, were not in man. They were in zone. And Ellison was headed straight for Gilmore, who’d passed Cody Latimer off when the receiver broke toward the middle of the field. Jones never saw the cornerback.
“Just a bad read,” the QB said after the game.
Ellison actually got his hand on the ball, but Gilmore was able to gather it and get both feet down in bounds.
Gilmore surrendered an 8-yard catch on the Giants’ first offensive snap, then was flawless the rest of the way, finishing with one interception and four pass breakups on six targets in one of the best performances of his Patriots tenure.
FUMBLE RECOVERY TOUCHDOWN
Arguably the biggest play of the game came courtesy of the Patriots’ “Boogeyman” linebacking corps.
With the Patriots maintaining a 21-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter and the Giants facing a third-and-9, New England rushed five, including safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon. Jamie Collins, who’s making an early case for Defensive Player of the Year, aligned over the right guard, then shuffled left at the snap, following Jonathan Hilliman as the running back set up a screen pass.
When Jones released the ball, Collins pounced. He breezed past blocker Kevin Zeitler and met Hilliman 7 yards in the backfield, dislodging the ball as he made contact.
Zeitler, McCourty, Winovich, Harmon and Adam Butler all tried to scoop up the bouncing pigskin, but it eventually squirted away from the pile and directly to Van Noy, who beat Jones to the pylon for a touchdown that all but secured victory for the Patriots.
Officials initially ruled Van Noy had stepped out of bounds before he reached the end zone, but that was overturned following a video review.
“Yeah, I knew I was inbounds the whole time,” Van Noy said. “I knew it was a touchdown. Refs needed the extra look, that’s OK.”
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images