By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots still have plenty of work to do. There’s still time for any potential weak spots to rear their ugly heads in the postseason. But as it stands right now, Bill Belichick’s changes to his defense in 2016 have paid off in a major way.
If the defense continues to roll like it has in recent weeks and the Patriots close the deal on a fifth Super Bowl on the strength of that unit, then Belichick’s mid-season trade of Jamie Collins will go down as one of his greatest masterstrokes. There’s still a chance that Collins’ essential replacement, trade acquisition Kyle Van Noy, could be exposed, but it would take a disaster from that particular position to doom the Patriots in their quest to win another Lombardi Trophy.
Despite that there’s still been a drop-off in talent between Collins and Van Noy, the emergence of the defense in recent weeks has been striking. They are certainly playing better as a group than they did in the first half of the season and have improved greatly in the turnover department. The Collins trade wasn’t the only notable move: Trey Flowers’ playing time has steadily increased, and he has emerged as an impact player on a Patriots defensive line that struggled to pressure quarterbacks in the early-going.
Belichick was asked during his Tuesday conference call about the in-season moves he’s made to the defense and how proud he is to see them playing better, and in typical Belichickian fashion, he downplayed the whole idea.
“Whatever we can do to improve our team, we’ll look at it. We’ve done that, whether that’s signing a player as a free agent, trade for a player, pick up a player off of waivers. There are a number of different ways to add players to your roster; bring them up off your practice squad. There are a number of ways to add players to your roster and if we feel that there’s a need because of an injury or an opportunity because of the player that we’re adding, if it looks like he can bring something to our team then we’ll do that. We’ve always done that. Some have worked out, not all of them do. Not all of the players we currently have on our roster at the end of training camp work out either, so it’s just trying to do what’s best for the team.”
Belichick severely downplayed the moves he’s made this season, and he should. It can’t be stressed enough that the Patriots played one of the easiest schedules in the National Football League – certainly in terms of opposing quarterbacks – and would face a significantly tougher challenge against any NFC opponent in the Super Bowl than they faced in the regular season. The one good NFC quarterback who faced them this season, Russell Wilson, was unstoppable up and down the field for the entire game.
However, that was six weeks ago, and the defense has played remarkably better since then. Yes, they have faced mostly bottom-tier NFL quarterbacks, but they mostly stymied Ravens QB Joe Flacco when he has historically played well against them and to hold any quarterback to just three points on the road in Denver is an impressive accomplishment. They aced the vaunted “eye test” in the second half of the regular season.
It remains to be seen just how great this defense can be when it goes up against stronger competition on offense. That may not come until, potentially, the Super Bowl. The Pittsburgh Steelers would also be a very nice test in a potential AFC Championship Game. But in terms of the regular season, Belichick’s moves on defense have paid off tremendously.
Still, Belichick had good reason to downplay the moves. Their work is not done yet, and their biggest test on defense is yet to come.
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.