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FOXBORO (CBS) — A major change may very well be afoot in New England.
Tom Brady is still the Patriots’ quarterback, but the men who made up the high-powered, explosive offenses of the past five seasons are nowhere to be found. And now, for the second straight week, the team’s defense has led the way to a victory.
Of course, the Patriots haven’t exactly faced the league’s best offenses just yet, and to be sure, Brady’s offense was better than satisfactory against the Buccaneers in a 23-3 win on Sunday. Still, a team can only play against the teams on the schedule, and there’s no mistaking which side of the ball has been the driving force of the past two victories.
Though Tampa’s final offensive numbers looked decent, when it came time to make a play, it was the Patriots’ defense more often than not winning the battle. With the Patriots only able to pick up two first downs and gain just 31 yards in the first quarter, the Patriots defense — with a little help from a missed Rian Lindell field goal — limited the Tampa lead to just 3-0.
The second quarter began with a stop for the Patriots’ defense on a fourth-and-5 from the New England 34-yard line. After the Patriots took a 7-3 lead, the defense again came up with a fourth-down stop, this time with Brandon Spikes wrapping up Doug Martin well before the running back could pick up the yard he needed for the first down.
“[Fourth-down stops were] big, definitely. Both of those stops were big. They both led to points, and that’s huge, man. It’s just huge,” Aqib Talib said. “A fourth-down stop is just like a turnover, man. Our offense comes on the field all fired up, their defense comes on on the field kind of down. It’s just like a turnover.”
Before the half, Vincent Jackson ran a deep out when the Bucs were questionably trying to drive in the waning seconds of the half. Talib, a former Buccaneer, made them pay when he jumped the route and picked off Josh Freeman’s pass. It allowed the Patriots to tack on an extra three points before halftime, and it may have been the play that swung the momentum of the game.
“Aqib did a great job. He worked hard, had a good week of preparation. He had a real good week at practice, and it showed up in the game,” Bill Belichick said. “He made that play in practice, the interception, a couple of times, and it’s just the way it worked out in the game.”
The defense came up with yet another fourth-down stop at the start of the fourth quarter to set up a New England drive that essentially iced the game. For good measure, the Pats forced an incompletion on a fourth-and-10 in the game’s final minutes to secure the 20-point victory.
As with any part of football, a good defense is only useful if the offense can produce, too. Given that No. 12 is still the man under center, the Patriots’ defense is well aware of that.
“Whenever you can change the possession and get the ball back into our offense’s hands, that’s always huge,” Chandler Jones, who was in on two separate sacks of Freeman, said. “Just getting the ball in our offense’s hands is our biggest goal, because we have a higher chance to score when we put the ball in Tom’s hands.”
The end result for Tampa’s offense was ugly: 5-for-14 on third downs (35 percent), 0-for-4 on fourth downs, 0-for-2 in the red zone. With the Pats’ D coming up with three sacks and an interception, it was all that was needed to lead to a lopsided final score.
As for how good the defense can be this year, perhaps Jones said it best: “It’s as good as we allow it to be.”
It’s an indication that for the first time in what seems like a long while, the Patriots’ defense is in control. Yes, shutting down Tampa is not exactly the world’s greatest defensive accomplishment, and yes, the team will still need the offense to win a good number of games this year. But the Patriots know if it comes down to the defense in a tightly contested game in which the offense isn’t firing on all cylinders, they can win those games — and comfortably. The most difficult tests are yet to come, but for now, it’s been aces for the defense.