Patriots defense starts out on a high

Andy Hart
September 09, 2019 - 8:54 am

Play defense in New England and you play second fiddle. It is what it is.

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The Patriots are Tom Brady’s team and the arrival of All-Pro star receiver Antonio Brown is going to do nothing but add attention to the offense.

But anyone who’s been paying attention this summer knows the defending Super Bowl champions – a title earned in large part by holding the high-powered Rams to just three points last February – are anything but a one-sided team.

In Sunday night’s impressive victory over the Steelers at Gillette Stadium, a Patriots defense that’s been hyped all summer put forth a pretty damn dominant performance in what might just be its biggest test of the early part of the season holding Pittsburgh to a mere three points.

Ben Roethlisberger never found any rhythm in the passing game as Stephon Gilmore shadowed JuJu Smith-Schuster and held him in check.

The front seven allowed just 32 yards on 13 rushes, including James Conner carrying the ball 10 times for just 21 yards.

Pittsburgh was just 1-for-6 on third down in the first half, when the visitors had four first downs, 87 total yards and a zero points.

“I thought our defensive players played well across the board,” Bill Belichick said after the superb opening performance. “It’s hard to get to Roethlisberger. He does a good job back there, but I thought we were around him and covered well, tackled well. Again, this is a very good group of skill players. Our players really competed hard against them. We had a couple of big third-down stops, fourth-down stops, a stop down around the goal line. We made some big plays when we had to.”

“Our defense played great,” Brady added, always one to acknowledge his teammates on that side of the ball even if the rest of the world doesn’t always do the same.

Maybe the scariest thing for opponents is that Belichick’s defenses seemingly always improve as the season rolls on. Past Septembers have included some defensive struggles only to see the unit come together by late in the year and into the postseason. For 2019, though, it’s hard to imagine a much more impressive performance against a pretty proven opponent to open the year.

“I think we just did a good job,” concluded Devin McCourty, who closed the door with an interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter. “Every time we play a good defensive performance, it’s because we kind of stuck to the game plan.”

Not only was it a good job, it was one that displayed the depth of talent New England has at its disposal on defense at all three levels, even on a night when Kyle Van Noy was absent due to the birth of a child and captain Elandon Roberts didn’t play a single defensive snap.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that could start on a lot of teams in the NFL, and guys are very selfless,” McCourty said. “Come out here, prepare when their number’s called and go out there and play, and I think we’ve just got to keep that mentality all throughout.”

There is clearly a building confidence within the unit, one based in the work that’s gone on all summer.

“Practice is where you get that mindset to execute in games,” Duron Harmon said. “We’ve been practicing hard from the beginning of OTAs, to training camp, to now. We’ve just been locked in. Everybody has been on the same page and making sure they are doing their jobs. Everybody is being fundamentally sound and when we do that, we are a pretty good football team.”

As much as the versatility and depth of the overall unit was on full display dispatching Pittsburgh, it certainly helps when you have a No. 1 cornerback like Gilmore to spearhead the back end and deal with opponents’ most dangerous weapon.

“Stephon is just a silent assassin. He doesn’t say much but he goes out there each and every week locked in and focused. We knew we liked that matchup,” Harmon said of Gilmore’s battle with Smith-Schuster.

Asked about past slow starts on defense and the idea that this year’s unit might be further ahead in its development early on, Belichick wouldn’t take the bait.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ve got 15 games to go. We’ll see what we do this week in Miami. We’ll just take it one game at a time.”

Fair enough, but for this one game the unit played at an elite level, something that hasn’t been seen too often over the years this early in the season. It’s a great starting point that may just show the potential season-long greatness of the second-fiddle unit in Foxborough.

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