FOXBORO -- Dismissed for the better part of the last five-plus seasons as a mere sideshow when compared to the Patriots’ high-powered offensive extravaganza, the defense has turned the tables through the early stages of the 2013 regular season and has outplayed an inconsistent offense for most of the first two games.
The season-opening numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt because they’ve come against teams helmed by rookie quarterbacks. But in both games, the defense has more than done its part, providing quality stops, plenty of turnovers and getting off the field regularly on third down. As a result, the early returns -- the Patriots have yielded an average of 15.5 points in two games while holding the opposition to three offensive touchdowns in 29 defensive series -- could provide some hope that a defensive renaissance is on the horizon for New England.
“We like that responsibility, pressure, whatever it may be is on us. It’s a good feeling to know that as a defense, you’re going out there and doing your job and holding other teams and giving our offense the most opportunity we can by just giving them the ball back,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “It’s our job to not let the other team score. Whatever it may be, whatever situation it is, we have to stop them. That’s our job.”
Here are some of the defensive numbers from the first two contests:
• While no one will call last Thursday’s game a classic for either team, it certainly was an impressive display by the New England defense, as the Patriots held the Jets to 6-for-18 on third down and one touchdown on 15 total drives. New England forced four turnovers and had four sacks, with two of the turnovers coming via Aqib Talib interceptions and two of the sacks coming from Chandler Jones.
• In the opener, the Bills had 14 possessions and came away with just two touchdowns. Buffalo didn’t cross into New England territory until midway through the second quarter. In addition, the Patriots forced a pair of turnovers and limited Pro Bowl running back C.J. Spiller to 2.4 yards per carry.
Granted, we’re not talking about the 1985 Bears or 2000 Ravens. But the mere fact that there’s a discussion about the New England defense having to bail out the offense is notable, particularly when you consider the statistical struggles the Patriots have had on that side of the ball over the last five seasons.
“Are there other things we need to work on? Of course. It’s early in the season,” Ninkovich said. “We just have to have constant improvement throughout the season.”
Specific to the state of the New England defense, three interesting wrinkles have developed over the first two weeks:
1. Moving Jones from defensive end inside to defensive tackle. As we said here, the decision to kick the longer, leaner Jones inside on occasion has worked well for New England, which has seen the second-year defensive lineman out of Syracuse create havoc for opposing offensive lines when he’s been head-up on an opposing guard. This certainly isn’t the sort of thing the Patriots will be able to expand upon going forward beyond a handful of snaps on passing downs -- a good quarterback and an elite offense will be able to game plan for the possibility of a lighter defensive lineman on that gap and check down to a run. But for a handful of snaps on third down and other passing situations, it certainly remains a possibility for the Patriots going forward.
2. Lots of nickel. The Patriots fancy themselves a game-plan team, so many of the personnel decisions we have seen on the defensive side of the ball over the first two weeks may not be carried forward if the coaching staff feels it wouldn’t fit that week. However, with more pass-heavy teams on the schedule coming up (including the Saints, and, to some extent, the Falcons), it wouldn’t be a surprise to see New England utilize more of the 4-2-5 defensive scheme its leaned on so heavily over the first two games of the season.
3. Brandon Spikes is the odd man out. One of the best run-stuffers in the league has had an interesting start to his season. He tapped out of the first game because of dehydration issues, and it didn’t turn out to be much of an issue because New England went with the previously mentioned 4-2-5 defensive combo for most of the game, which meant Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower were the only two linebackers on the field for an extended stretch. (Per Pro Football Focus, Spikes played 16 of a possible 64 defensive snaps.) Then, in Week 2 against the Jets, he saw more playing time (31 of a possible 74 snaps, per PFF) but was subbed out frequently for an extra defensive back on third down and other passing situations. (Granted, they play different positions, but it’s a little jarring to see that rookie defensive lineman Joe Vellano has played more snaps than Spikes over the first two games.) He’s still not a three-down linebacker in the classic sense of the term -- and as we said, the Patriots figure to make personnel changes on a week-to-week basis -- but the dip in playing time for Spikes over the first two weeks is something to monitor going forward.
This Sunday, it figures the Patriots will go about defending Tampa Bay in a different manner than they did the Jets and Bills, and that starts at the quarterback position. Josh Freeman is a different type of signal-caller than either Buffalo’s EJ Manuel or New York’s Geno Smith for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he’s not a rookie. In their first two wins, the defensive game plan was all about containment and making sure that the overly mobile Manuel and Smith didn’t find a seam and take off. When it comes to Freeman, he doesn’t have the same propensity to take off that Manuel and Smith possess, and so this might be more of a traditional pass rush situation for the New England defense than what we saw in the first two games.
“He’s got a strong arm, man,” Talib said of Freeman, who helped the Bucs lead the league in pass plays of 40 yards or more last season with 16. “They get that running game going, and off that play action, he can throw that ball -- and he knows where they need to throw it. He brings that strong arm and they bring that deep ball, they hit a lot of big plays. They led the league last year, so that’s exactly what he brings to the table.”
One other thing to remember about Freeman, as our friend Joe Bucs Fan reminds us: Freeman struggled last year against Dallas (Rob Ryan), plus this year against the Jets (Rex Ryan) and Saints (Rob Ryan again). Freeman admitted on his radio show last week that exotic pressures from 3-4 defenses are difficult for him. If New England does bring pressure, look for it to come from different, non-traditional areas.
Two more points of emphasis when it comes to slowing down the Bucs. One, containing Doug “Muscle Hamster” Martin, a bowling ball of a running back who has 209 yards on 53 carries in his first two games, good for a 3.9 yards per carry average. While the policy of containment worked against the quarterbacks in Weeks 1 and 2, it might carry over to the running back this week.
“Quick guy,” Ninkovich said when asked about the 5-foot-9, 215-pound Martin. “He can make a lot of plays out there by testing the edge and also inside. I think, as a defensive line, you have to be strong on the edges, set the edge, not allow him to bounce the ball out and make yards that way. Good challenge for us to just keep him contained and not let him run all over the place because he’s fast.”
And two, the presence of wide receiver Vincent Jackson adds some bite to the Tampa Bay passing game. Jackson is unique for several reasons, not the least of which he feasts on the Patriots on a consistent basis (in three career games against New England, he’s had 19 catches for 359 yards and three touchdowns), as well as the fact that he’s a 6-foot-5, 23-pound receiver who lines up in the slot on a regular basis.
“He runs routes like a smaller guy, and he runs deep balls like a 6-foot-4 guy. He has the best of both worlds as a wideout. Real hard to defend,” Talib said of Jackson, a teammate in Tampa for a portion of the 2012 season before Talib was dealt to the Patriots. “He brings that quickness to the table, so he can get in the slot and still get open. He definitely brings both sides to the table.”
Going forward, there will be new challenges for the New England defense, including showdowns with the high-powered Falcons and Saints over the next month-plus in a series of games that surely will provide the first real test of the 2013 season. Improvement and continued good health will be the key for this group, as the starters have proven they have mettle, but the backups -- a group that includes plenty of rookies -- remain untested.
But two games in, the defense certainly has made a convincing statement that the days of New England simply having to outscore its opponent to ensure a win could be coming to an end.
“We’re building. It’s something to build on,” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. “Our goal is to get better each week and each day, and just keep plowing forward. That’s our goal. We still have a lot of football to play, but we’re headed in the right direction.”