For some, it may be hard to believe that the Patriots defense has done such an extraordinary job taking the ball away. After all, all we've read about in the last year is how porous they are, with fingers pointing at the endless amount of yardage they've given up and the rest of the misleading statistical rankings.
Useless stats like total yardage and passing yardage can be thrown out the window because they simply don't matter. Some of those high yardage totals can be attributed to zone coverage, which has it's roots in the Patriots' bend-but-don't-break defensive philosophy. What matters is takeaways and points allowed per game, and the New England Patriots rank second and 13th, respectively.
There have been incremental improvements for the Patriots on the defensive side of the ball, especially with forced turnovers. Last season, they forced 1.9 takeaways per game but this year, it's up one full turnover to 2.9, second only to the Chicago Bears (3.0). Creating more turnovers has won them important games, such as divisional clashes against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills.
Both of those rivals' downfalls against the Patriots will be illustrated today, starting with inside linebacker Brandon Spikes' strip of Bills running back Fred Jackson.
In a world that revolves around the fists of Charles Tillman, Brandon Spikes is often forgotten about (despite his unusual size) when discussing players adept at forcing turnovers,
Spikes is 6'2" and 255 pounds, which is not your typical size of a 4-3 linebacker. He is a bit heavier than the average linebacker, thus making him too slow to run with pass-catchers down the seam, but he's still one of the most impressive linebackers in the NFL. The reason is because of his innate instincts for making big plays when they are most needed.
With the Patriots up a touchdown in the back-and-forth Week 5 game against the rival Buffalo Bills, Brandon Spikes lined up to the strong side of the formation in the Patriots' 3-3-5 set.
He stood across Scott Chandler and carefully observed the tight end motioning across the formation to set up a lead block for Jackson, who would be receiving the handoff from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
As Chandler led and Jackson carried, Spikes watched closely. He was the support defender on the back side, which meant that he would clean up the running back in case of a cutback. However, there was no cutback administered; Spikes accelerated, gaining momentum before squaring up. He hit Jackson like a Mack track, bending him parallel to the ground as he instinctively punched the ball out with his right hand, forcing a fumble and a change of possession.
The subsequent plays ran by the Patriots' offense resulted in a touchdown, one that proved pivotal as the Patriots extended their lead and squashed any momentum that the Bills had in their comeback attempt.
Spikes has a knack for punching the ball out, indicated by his five forced fumbles this season, but he's not the only one that makes plays for the Patriots defense. Several of his defensive teammates have added turnovers to their names, such as recently acquired cornerback Aqib Talib.
Talib, in his first game back from suspension and in his debut as a Patriot, scored on a 59-yard pick-six against the Indianapolis Colts. The pass from Andrew Luck sailed over the intended target, Reggie Wayne, and into the hands of Talib. Credit New England's front four; its ability to apply consistent pressure has helped cause a number of interceptions this year.
Though the Patriots defense ranks just 21st in the NFL in sacks, it has done a good job of forcing quarterbacks to move up into the pocket and hurrying them into ill-advised passes. Against the Indianapolis Colts, that very thing happened as Talib picked off Luck from his deep third, Cover 3 alignment.
But let's not stop there. Credit must be given where it is due, and it's due in the defensive backfield, where the corners and safeties have stepped up their play. In their Thanksgiving throttling of the New York Jets, safety Steve Gregory made a very impressive interception that opposing quarterback Mark Sanchez never saw coming.
Sanchez was under center with "21" personnel (two backs, one tight end), and the Patriots showed man coverage across the board. There were two deep safeties, which suggested Cover 2 man coverage, or what's commonly called "Man-Under." But that's not quite what it turned out to be; rather, it would be Cover 1 Robber.
Cover 1 Robber is man coverage across the board except for the two safeties, one of whom plays deep middle with the other lurking in the intermediate range, reading the quarterback and attempting to rob passes.
The robber was Steve Gregory, and he was reading Sanchez the entire way, breaking on the ball as soon as he saw the upfield shoulder go up. Gregory ran from one hash to the other before jumping in front of the slot receiver's route for the interception.
As one can see, the New England Patriots defenders have stepped up their game. The New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers have shown in recent years—most notably in their 2009 and 2010 Super Bowl winning seasons—that accumulating takeaways is crucial, as they both were one of the top teams in doing so in their respective years.
Maybe the New England Patriots defense will once again lead them to a Super Bowl championship. Like it did in the glory years.