Hannable: Remarkable turnaround now has Patriots defense in company of historic units

Ryan Hannable
November 29, 2017 - 11:16 pm

Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports

FOXBORO — Remember how bad the Patriots defense was after Week 4?

The unit was ranked dead last in the NFL in total defense and was second-to-last in points allowed, allowing an average of 32 points per game. 

What a difference eight weeks makes, as although the unit still ranks 30th in total defense, it is now ranked 11th in points allowed, as now it is averaging 20 points allowed per game.

Over the last seven games, the Patriots are allowing an average of 13.1 points per game and haven’t allowed more than 17 points in that span. Allowing 17 points or fewer in seven straight games is a feat of historic proportions. 

It is tied for the second-longest streak for the Patriots in the Bill Belichick era, as from the end of 2001 to the start of 2002, New England went eight straight games allowing 17 points or fewer. Furthermore, they are just the fourth team in the past decade to accomplish seven consecutive games or more of allowing 17 or fewer points, joining the 2014 Seahawks, 2013 Chiefs and the 2009 Jets.

So, what has been the key to the turnaround?

“Execution – just playing the defense better,” Devin McCourty said on Wednesday. “I think we got better and we focused on what we’re being coached to do and what we needed to do game plan wise. We just played it better. It’s crazy that it’s that simple because it’s like, ‘Well, why didn’t you do that the first four weeks?’ But, I think everyone just stuck at it, didn’t kind of fall into how the game was going and get on that roller coaster ride. Everybody just locked in and focused on their job and trying to do their job better. Overall, that made us a better group.”

Part of the execution being better has been the communication getting to where it needed to be and not allowing big plays. In the first four games of the year, the Patriots allowed 18 passing plays of at least 20 yards and in the last seven, they have allowed just 16.

A lot of this is directly related to the improved play of Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore was a major liability in the first month of the season, as it appeared he was involved in many of the big plays. After Week 4, Gilmore’s role was changed as now he’s matched up 1-on-1 with a receiver instead of having to do a bunch of different things. 

It’s clearly paid off, as he’s in the midst of his best three-game stretch of the season and has been the Patriots’ best cornerback since his return from a concussion — much better than even Malcolm Butler.

"I'm never shook," Gilmore said after Sunday’s 35-17 win over the Dolphins. "I just work hard and when you're playing with your teammates, you get used to playing with them in practice, you get used to playing with them in the game. You get better and better every game. I'm never really down on myself. I know what it takes to be good. It's not my first rodeo at it. I'm used to it. I'm used to stuff not going your way sometimes and you've got to fight your way out of it."

Without question, the Patriots defense isn’t as good as the 2014 Seahawks (15.9 points per game), 2013 Chiefs (19 points per game) and the 2009 Jets (14.75 points per game), but compared to where it was at the end of September, the unit is in a very good place to complement the offense and make a Super Bowl LII run.

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