Hannable: Why Patriots defense is playing best it has all season going into Super Bowl LIII

Ryan Hannable
January 27, 2019 - 8:29 pm
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Even though the Patriots have allowed an average of 29.5 points in the two playoff games, it can still be argued that the defensive unit has carried them into Super Bowl LIII.

Just look at how the defense performed in the first half of both playoff games. 

Against the Chargers, the Patriots led 35-7 and besides an opening touchdown drive, the Chargers did absolutely nothing. On the final four drives before halftime, they didn’t make it past midfield once and averaged 3.3 yards per play. 

It was even better against the Chiefs. The Patriots led 14-0 at the half and taking away a 42-yard completion to Tyreek Hill, Kansas City had -10 yards of total offense. It ran just 16 total offensive plays, and averaged two yards per play.

In both games, the defense set the tone and made things much easier on the offense.

“The one thing I feel like we’ve done a good job of is starting fast,” cornerback Jason McCourty said. “Divisional round, conference championship, we’ve done a good job of starting fast, getting off the field, getting the ball to our offense and being able to get ahead. I think that’s been really beneficial.”

With that being said, at some points in the year the defense wasn’t playing very well at all, especially against the run. The improvement in that area has been the biggest difference in recent weeks.

Over the first 13 games, the unit allowed 116 yards on the ground per game, including 189 and 158 in back-to-back road games against the Dolphins and Steelers in Weeks 14 and 15. Furthermore, in Weeks 13-15, it allowed an average of 7.64 yards per play, which is the worst mark in franchise history and fourth-worst ever in the NFL since the merger.

But, since the Steelers game (last four games) it is allowing only 59 yards per game, including 41 and 19 yards respectively in the two playoff games. It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that has changed so much in these games, but the group seems to have come together and found roles that work best. In the first half of the year it seemed the defense was still trying to figure things out.

Even with that, it still feels like it can be even better.

“I feel like we’ve played [good] football over these last four games, and I feel like there is still room for us to grow,” Duron Harmon said on Dale & Keefe Friday. “Obviously, we have one last chance to be better than we were last week. We feel like we left some plays out there against the Chiefs.”

And facing a Rams offense led by running back Todd Gurley, the defense might need to be even better than it has been.

The 24-year-old certainly didn’t look himself against the Saints in the NFC title game, finishing with only 10 yards on four carries, but he insists he’s fully healthy for the game next Sunday. Stopping Gurley may be the biggest key for the Patriots defense.

During the regular season, Gurley averaged 4.9 yards per carry, the best mark of his entire career. Also, his 89.4 yards per game were the second-most in the league. He’s one of the biggest keys to the Rams’ success, as in their three losses this year he averaged 48 yards. Clearly, when he's off, so is the rest of the team.

If the Patriots can keep Gurley in check, they have a great chance of winning the game.

For as good as the Patriots defense has been of late, particularly against the run, it hasn’t yet been tested like it will next Sunday in Super Bowl LIII. 

But as Bill Belichick says, it’s not supposed to get any easier.

Related: Brandin Cooks responds to Patrick Chung: 'We heard you talking that talk back there in Foxboro'

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