By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — The Patriots’ defense is on a special sort of run, the type of stretch not often seen throughout history and certainly not seen in the modern NFL, where offense is king. In a league that’s changed rules and shaped strategy to favor offenses, Bill Belichick’s team is offering up a bit of a throwback for the league’s celebration of 100 years.
The Jets did manage to reach the end zone twice on Sunday afternoon, though neither score was the fault of the defense. One touchdown came on a fumble recovery off a muffed punt, and the other came via pick-six.
As such, here is how many points opponents have scored this year against various Patriots units:
Opponents Vs. New England’s Offense: 7 points
Opponents Vs. New England’s Punt Return Unit: 7 points
Opponents Vs. New England’s Defense: 3 points
As you might expect, a defense that’s allowed just three points through three games — after allowing just three points in the Super Bowl against the NFL’s second-best offense — has folks buzzing about the New England defense.
How much of that, though, is truly legitimate? And how much of that is a product of facing some opponents who just might be among the very worst teams in football this season?
That’s an answer that can’t be given with straight facts or raw data. It’s an answer that can only be given by a true football genius.
Fortunately, you’ve got one right here.
REALITY: The Patriots’ Defense Really Could Not Have Done Any Better Through Three Games
Bash the quality of opponents all you want, because it’s certainly valid. But you have to understand: It’s not as if the Patriots’ defense is merely playing pretty well against these bad teams. No, the Patriots’ defense is playing nearly perfect through 180 minutes of NFL football.
Yes, obviously, second-year QB and pick No. 199 overall Luke Falk was making his first career NFL start; he did not end up doing a great Tom Brady impression. Yes, obviously, the Patriots’ Week 2 opponent may end up being the worst team in NFL history.
But allowing just 105 total offensive yards over the course of an entire football game is something that just does not happen. A shutout, which the Patriots recorded a week ago, is likewise a rarity in today’s NFL. (The Dolphins mustered 184 big yards in that one.) The Cardinals went from 1992 to 2017 without a shutout. The Lions went from 1996 to 2018 without one. The Patriots have one this year and could easily have three.
HYPE: OK, Fine, Quality Of Opponent Matters
You could technically note that Ben Roethlisberger is a Hall of Famer, but he’s also been pretty useless whenever visiting Foxboro, and he was also one week away from snapping an elbow tendon. He was perhaps not at his best in Week 1, and the Steelers’ receiving corps left … something to be desired.
The Dolphins are in full tank mode, Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard but is not great at quarterbacking, and the offense traded away Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills moments before the season began. Not great.
The Jets, despite offensive guru Adam Gase running the show, scored just 7 points on offense in Week 1, three points in Week 2, and zero in Week 3. Sam Darnold has mono, and Luke Falk presented such a small challenge for the Patriots that they often forewent keeping a safety back deep, on account of the complete lack of deep passing threat offered by Falk.
There’s no doubt that the three offenses the Patriots have faced thus far … stink. They stink pretty bad.
REALITY: Le’Veon Bell Is No Joke
If there was one player who presented a challenge on Sunday, it would have been Le’Veon Bell. He had 92 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in Week 1, and he had 129 yards from scrimmage in Week 2.
But in Week 3 against the Patriots, he had just 63 yards from scrimmage. He averaged 1.9 yards per rush on 18 carries, routinely running into a brick wall and hitting the turf.
Bell had six plays with zero or negative yardage. He picked up a first down just twice.
He’s a good football player. He was not one on Sunday.
HYPE: Not All Picks Are Created Equal
Devin McCourty got an interception added to his career stat totals on Sunday. That’s great for him.
But also, what in the world was this?
— NFL (@NFL) September 22, 2019
Credit to McCourty for standing there and catching the can of corn, but, well, that didn’t mean the Patriots’ defense really did much to get that one.
REALITY: The Depth Is Real. So Real.
Who’s the best player on the Patriots’ defense? It’s an impossible question to answer.
Stephon Gilmore is either the very-best, second-best, or at worst third-best cornerback in the entire NFL. (Just kidding, he’s the best.) You’d be hard-pressed to find a better defensive backfield in the league.
The same can be said at linebacker, where Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins each brings a unique skill-set.
On the defensive line, Michael Bennett looks like his usual self, John Simon is terrifically underrated, rookie Chase Winovich can play and the big boys in Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Danny Shelton are doing their jobs every snap.
There is no defensive MVP to this point because everybody — across the board — makes plays. Eight different players have at least a half-sack. Three different players have interceptions. The tackles are spread out, as are the pass breakups. It’s just a through, thorough defensive unit.
HYPE: Jason McCourty’s Pop Warner Team Was Better
I was curious if a veteran NFL player like Jason McCourty had ever been a part of a defense at any level of football that had not allowed a touchdown in four consecutive games. So I asked him.
“Heck yeah. In Pop Warner we didn’t give up no points” a spirited McCourty answered. “In Pop Warner, we were dominant.”
Hard to really get too excited about the 2019 New England Patriots when we know that a bunch of youths in northern New Jersey once put forth the same football accomplishment in the late ’90s.
REALITY: This Is Not Anything New
As humans, we are flawed. We tend to focus on what’s happened most recently more than anything else.
So we should probably zoom out a little bit to see that this run is about more than three games in September, and it’s about more than the Super Bowl vs. the Rams, and it’s about more than that first-half shutout in Kansas City.
Going back to last year’s Week 11 bye, the Patriots have played 12 football games. Counting all points — offense, defense, special teams, whatever — the Patriots kept their opponents under 22.5 points nine times. (22.5 points allowed was the league average last year.) Opponents have averaged just 14 points per game in those 12 contests; the Cardinals ranked dead last in the NFL last year with 14.1 points per game.
Put another way: Since Week 12 of last season, Patriots opponents have scored at the rate of the NFL’s worst offense.
That should help put into perspective that despite the low level of competition in recent weeks, the Patriots’ defense is not going anywhere. They’ll be tested much more against Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City, of course, but over the balance of their 16-game schedule, they’re very likely to make it to January boasting the league’s top defense.
“That’s pretty damn good,” Collins assessed of his team’s work thus far. “You know, we just go out there and play for keeps.”
HYPE: Conclusive Results Not Expected For Some Time
Now that the Dolphins and Jets are out of the way, it’s time for the Patriots to face some real competition in … the Bills … and the Redskins … and then the Giants.
And then the Jets again.
If you’re waiting to see how the Patriots’ defense fares against the top offenses in the league, you’re simply not going to get much opportunity. Baltimore, Dallas and Kansas City are on the schedule, but they also represent less than 20 percent of the schedule. Meanwhile the Jets, Dolphins, Steelers, Giants and Browns — teams that ranked in the bottom 10 in scoring entering Week 3 — account for almost half of the Patriots’ opponents this season.
If your whole thing is discounting what they’re doing out there because of the bad opponents, then you’ll be able to bang that drum all year.
REALITY: Just Look At The Tweet
The @Patriots have played 347 games under Bill Belichick, including playoffs.
The 105 total yards they allowed to the #Jets today is the fewest in a game in that span.
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) September 22, 2019
That’s it. That’s the entire point.
To be sure, the 2019 Patriots are not the 1985 Bears. But in the modern NFL, with a salary cap and illegal contact penalties and pass interference review and fantasy football agendas, they’re probably about as close as you can get.
There’s no discernible weakness anywhere on the field, and they’re currently not just beating bad competition. They are decimating bad competition.
They have allowed 597 offensive yards and three offensive points over the course of three full games. By comparison, Baltimore put up 643 yards of offense … in Week 1.
They may not be facing the NFL’s best offenses every week, but to be fair, no team does. You play your schedule, and taking a peek at that schedule for the Patriots, it’s safe to expect this ride to keep on rolling.