By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots defense has not been bulletproof over the course of the 2016 season – certainly not in the first half. Logan Ryan has been at the forefront of the verbal smackdown doled out to the “haters” and “doubters” in the wake of the defense’s stunning turnaround in recent weeks, but such vindication had to be earned.
It has been, but it’s important to note that the defense hasn’t played like this all season. One of the biggest reasons for the defense’s turnaround, however, has been their improvement in the turnover department.
After taking the ball away just nine times in their first 10 games – four of which came in just Week 2 against the Dolphins – the Patriots closed out the regular season with 14 takeaways in their final six games. They capped the incredible reversal on Sunday against the Dolphins with two more takeaways, and one of them was of the game-changing variety.
With the Dolphins threatening to get back in the game with under nine minutes left in regulation, Devin McCourty hit Miami’s Damien Williams after he made a catch, knocking the ball free. Shea McClellin scooped up the loose ball and ran it back 69 yards. It was the longest fumble recovery return in Patriots history.
Six weeks ago, would you have predicted such a play would take place, let alone that these kinds of big defensive plays would be happening on a weekly basis?
I can’t speak for everyone, but there was at least one person who questioned the defense’s ability to hold up by the end of the season: me. After the Patriots’ loss to the Seattle Seahawks at Gillette Stadium in Week 10, in which the defense looked completely lost at times, the Patriots ranked 26th in the NFL in total takeaways and 13th in turnover differential. They finished the regular season tied for 14th in takeaways and third in turnover differential.
Their work may not be done yet, but the defense to this point has proved a lot of doubters wrong.
The defense did have one stat to hang its hat on all season, a category that seemed more like a mirage in the first half of the season but in recent weeks has exemplified their utter dominance on defense: points allowed. After consistently ranking near the top of the league in that category, the Patriots finished the regular season in first place with just 15.6 points allowed per game.
McClellin pointed to the defense’s ability to keep teams off the scoreboard as the most important aspect of their success this season, which isn’t a surprise considering what Bill Belichick has preached in the past.
“It’s all about scoring,” said McClellin. “You keep your opponent to less points, you’re going to win the game. That’s what it’s all about.”
When asked about what led to his fumble recovery, McClellin subtly revealed perhaps the most important reason for the defense’s improvement in recent weeks.
“Dev [McCourty] happened to make a great play causing the fumble, and I was in the right place and tried to scoop and score,” said McClellin. “I didn’t score, but like I said, I was in the right place at the right time and did what I could with it.”
The key phrases there: “I was in the right place at the right time.” In other words, he did his job. Part of the reason that the Patriots have been able to make so many game-changing plays is because they are in a position to make those plays more often. They are playing much better as a collective unit.
Of course, it helps that they also have actual playmakers on the defense – McCourty, in particular, has shown this season that he does have big-time playmaking ability despite playing an unexciting role and being more of a steady presence on the defense than an eye-popping playmaker. His fourth-down hit on the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas to jar the ball loose and ice the game in the Patriots’ 16-3 win in Denver was another notably huge play that wouldn’t show up on a stat sheet.
Malcolm Butler’s superb play in 2016 – the whole season, not just in recent weeks – cannot go unnoticed, either. After a solid first season in the Patriots’ No. 1 corner role, Butler has taken another step forward in 2016, emerging as one of the elite corners in the league. His cumulative grade for the regular season on Pro Football Focus is 90.8, which grades as “Elite” and ranks him fifth in the NFL. According to the Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe, opposing quarterbacks were just 48-for-91 (52.7 percent) throwing against Butler, including 4 interceptions and 14 passes broken up. He allowed two or fewer catches in 9 of 16 games.
Though every season and every team is different, and it’s not perfect to compare past Patriots teams to each other, they have historically broken through and won the Super Bowl in seasons where they’ve had both Brady and the offense playing at a high level and an elite cornerback wiping receivers out of the game and making big plays when quarterbacks dare to target them. With Brady playing like the league MVP and Butler finding another level in 2016, perhaps this is another year that they reach the summit once again.
As great as Brady has played, if the Patriots can seal the deal for a fifth championship, it could be as much about the improvement of the defense as anything else.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.