The Patriots defeated the LA Rams on Sunday in a dominating fashion, although the scoreboard didn’t really show it. The defense played one of its best, most complimentary games of the year and may be making strides to getting back to what we’d hoped to see since training camp.
To be fair in my analysis, I will state the obvious that the Patriots took advantage of a rookie QB playing as poor pre-snap as he did post snap. He really didn’t seem to have any sense of timing on routes, pocket awareness, or touch on the ball. He didn’t have any help from his receivers either. Several passes that were catchable frequently fell to the turf after contact, and sometimes without. That being said, the Patriots didn’t make it easy for him, which I see as an improvement from what we have been seeing from Matt Patricia’s squad. They’re ranked 9 after this week in total defensive yards allowed, 6th in points per game, and tied for 2nd in total points allowed. The stats are what they are but my eyes have told me they haven’t been playing like a top ten defense but this game may have shown their potential to dial it up when it’s time.
The Patriots’ defensive philosophy for the most part is playing as a cohesive unit, not giving up big plays, and forcing the other team to move the ball without making a mistake. Mostly this makes sense against inaccurate and/or inexperienced QBs or ill-conceived coaching strategies, which I’d argue the Rams had both on Sunday. They did, however, decide to take a slightly different approach than that this week with few stunts and blitzes that seemed to be more aggressive calls than usual.
Throughout the game we saw pressure coming from the corners, with Logan Ryan getting a sack, and safety Patrick Chung firing up the middle a few times adding pressure. We also saw the defensive line providing penetration in the middle and edge rushers Rob Ninkovich and Chris Long getting a sack each. At the end of the game, Shea McClellan also got a sack, his only tackle of the game. This seems to be a more “dialed up” defense than we’re used to seeing. On the Logan Ryan sack for a 12-yard loss, the defensive formation was bunched all in the middle, looking like all four lineman and 2 backers, Sheard and McClellin were also going to rush. At the snap both Sheard and McClellin dropped back and Ryan came untouched off the corner spot. Again, Goff didn’t see it, sense it, feel it, or make any attempt to avoid it, but I think with that look, most immobile quarterbacks would suffer the same fate in that situation. That play was set up by a series of aggressive looks the Patriots had where one of the two linebackers would rush and the other would read and react to backs and tight ends.
We saw great play from our linebackers as well, with Hightower being the consistent stalwart that he is and Jabal Sheard dropping into a zone and picking off a pass from Goff. He had a solid performance after being a healthy scratch against San Francisco and seemingly being in Belichick’s dog house.
I think we saw a shift in philosophy from the defense this week that makes me hopeful for the rest of the year. I know they can see what we all see; three and four man rush with soft zone making the quarterback pass down the field hoping they’ll screw up does not work when your backs aren’t covering well, your line isn’t getting any pressure, and Ryan Fitzpatrick looks like Dan Marino against you. You can’t afford to sit back and allow your corners to just make tackles all day. Hopefully they are getting into a mindset that, “if we are going to get beat, it’s going to be because we’re trying to press up front first and man up on the corners, playing the ball.” I don’t think and I’m sure they don’t think abandoning their regular strategies is a good idea but I do think they saw the flaws of their team cannot be masked by less pressure. I think risks need to be taken, and they showed they’re at least willing to try some of that on Sunday.
We’ll see what they do against Flacco and the Ravens who are coming off of a stellar offensive performance against the Dolphins. This will show us if the Rams game was an anomaly or a test. I’m hoping the latter and that we’ll get to see a few more tricks come out of the bag defensively. Going forward, this defense may not be what we’d hoped it would be in training camp, but it might hold it together to be competitive. It doesn’t have to be elite. The Patriots have an elite offense, the loss of Gronk notwithstanding. The defense just needs to be good enough to get us a stop in a close game. I think this week, regardless of competition, they showed us something we haven’t seen in awhile: pressure and guts.