Can the New England Patriots Continue to Win on the Strength of Their Defense?
Are we witnessing a changing of the guard? Have the New England Patriots really gone from one of the most prolific offenses of all time to a defensive team built to grind out victories?
The Patriots will probably find their offense at some point, but until then, the defense will have to carry the load.
Their first two performances of the season show that they're capable of doing just that.
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In nearly every category that the Patriots have struggled in recently, they have improved through two games in 2013.
Granted, two games against rookie quarterbacks in their NFL debuts may not be the best measuring stick for success, but in the past, it would not have come as a surprise for the same two rookie quarterbacks to light up the Patriots defense at will.
It looked like New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith was well on his way to doing just that with a deep throw to wide receiver Stephen Hill down the seam on the Jets' second drive of the game.
Hill did a great job of getting inside on Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, and Smith made a great throw to take advantage.
One thing Hill forgot to do, however, was tuck the ball away.
One swing of Talib's foot resulted in a momentum swing that would keep the Jets offense in check for the time being, as he dragged Hill to the ground and unwittingly forced the fumble.
The Jets made it too easy for the Patriots defense.
Smith made it too easy for New England yet again on the final throw of the game, an interception by Talib.
He had Hill covered all the way down the sideline, and when Smith's pass was thrown behind Hill, all Talib had to do was turn around and look for the ball.
The Patriots defense has lived off turnovers for years (ranked in the league's top four in defensive turnovers in each of the past three years), and gifting them like this is a sure way to ensure defeat.
Not all of the Patriots' defensive stops were by luck, and not all were gift-wrapped by the failings of the Jets offense.
A lot of pressure front the Patriots' front seven went a long way in slowing down the Jets offense, as well.
On the play displayed above, defensive end Rob Ninkovich handily beat his assignment, right tackle Austin Howard, off the snap.
He exploded through the B-gap between the guard and tackle, and flushed Smith out of the pocket to his right. The rookie would then throw the pass away out of bounds.
The Patriots also showed they're not afraid to mix it up with an interesting pressure scheme.
They sent six men on the rush above, with nose tackle Vince Wilfork (yellow) rushing initially before shedding the block and leaving his lineman standing all alone with no one to block.
He could do nothing but watch as his transgression created a chain reaction of miscommunication between the rest of the offensive line, allowing three Patriots defenders to get through and create pressure.
All told, the Patriots hurried Smith on 14 of his 41 dropbacks—including the four sacks.
For his part, defensive lineman Chandler Jones figures to play a big role in their pressure schemes, as he did on Thursday.
In fact, the defensive end even lined up on the inside for one of his two sacks.
The mismatch in the middle between Jones and Jets left guard Vladimir Ducasse was one the Patriots looked to exploit.
Jones' explosiveness off the line was too much for Ducasse to handle, and coupled with the long-armed reach of Jones, Ducasse wasn't able to get a hand on him as Smith went down for a second time.
Combined with the two sacks (one each) from defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and defensive end Michael Buchanan, the Patriots saw something we haven't seen from them in awhile: a good mix of pressure up the middle and from the outside.
With continued pressure, the Patriots defense could be much better against the pass than in recent years (29th in 2012, 31st in 2011, 30th in 2010).
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The upcoming schedule, though, is not so kind to the Patriots.
They will play four of 2012's top 12 scoring offenses in the next 10 games on their schedule, and three of those games will be on the road.
Up next, however, is a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that features a second consecutive undisciplined, mistake-prone quarterback. This one, however, is a fifth-year NFL veteran in quarterback Josh Freeman.
We've seen the Patriots defense dominate inferior competition in the past. The real test for this defense will be how it performs against top competition. It gave up 150 points in nine games (16.7 points per game) to teams that finished below .500 in 2012 and gave up 181 points in seven games (25.9 points per game) to teams that finished above .500.
Is the Patriots defense capable of winning games through early offensive struggles?
They have forced six turnovers to date, but proved against the Buffalo Bills that they can win even when they fall short in the turnover margin (minus-one in Week 1).
In the end, the real measuring stick will be how this defense performs against top competition, and if its performances continue to be good enough to get wins, there will be little left for the unit to prove.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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