The New England Patriots are generally synonymous with Offense, and deservedly so. When your team is helmed by arguably the greatest football player in the 100-year history of the NFL, Tom Brady, you tend to pass the ball a bit more. For the majority of this decade, the success of the ‘Patriot Way’ has been predominantly incumbent upon the play of Tom Brady. In the fourth quarter and overtime of New England’s historic comeback victory in Super Bowl LI, Brady recorded 246 passing yards and a touchdown. In 2017, Brady captured his third MVP award en route to the team’s 8th Super Bowl appearance of his tenure. In recent memory, New England has been defined by stellar quarterback play and offensive prowess. But the paradigm seems to be shifting.
Of course, the Patriots still boast a formidable offense as they do every year. The team has outscored its opponents by a combined 95 points, by far the best in the NFL. However, the offense isn’t the story of 2019 (save for some wide receiver drama). Instead, it’s the defense that has been playing lights out, making professional football teams look like Pop Warner backups. It’s the defense that has allowed one offensive touchdown in four games, the defense that’s logged 18 sacks and 10 interceptions in the month of September alone, and the defense that may very well be the best the Patriots have ever had.
So what’s changed? How did a Bill Belichick ’71-led unit that allowed 41 points to a backup quarterback in the Super Bowl two years ago become an elite defense in the NFL? It all starts with the secondary. In the past few years, the Patriots have quietly assembled a stout pass-coverage unit consisting of previously-unknown and undrafted prospects, perceived mid-market players, and veteran presences. J.C. Jackson, an undrafted free agent in his second year with the team, has already logged two interceptions (INTs) and a blocked punt this year. Devin McCourty, a veteran Patriot and 3x Second-Team All-Pro safety, has recorded 4 INTs in 4 weeks on his way to receiving AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors. He’s not even the team’s most lethal asset.
Enter Stephon Gilmore, the best cornerback in the NFL (according to Pro Football Focus’ 2018 ranking) and New England’s premier lockdown defensive back. Considered to be a decent corner in his stint with the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots signed him to a hefty contract in a surprise signing on the first day of free agency in 2017. After a rocky first year with the team, Gilmore stole the defensive spotlight. he was selected as a First-Team All-Pro in 2018, and he made the game-sealing interception in the Patriots’ Super Bowl LIII victory. In 2019, he’s continued to excel, posting one INT and a defensive touchdown.
While the secondary is responsible for much of the team’s success so far this season, the linebacking corps also manages to incite fear in opposing quarterbacks’ eyes. Kyle Van Noy was awarded the AFC Defensive Player of the Week award for his 2-sack performance against the Buffalo Bills this past Sunday. Jamie Collins, a 2015 Second-Team All-Pro linebacker, has enjoyed an exceptional start to the season with three interceptions and 3.5 sacks. Dont’a Hightower has been playing his role by anchoring an already talented tackling group. In short, not only are the Patriots overpowered in their secondary, but they boast a strong linebacking presence rich in talent and pedigree.
In the era of Patrick Mahomes, ludicrous passing statistics, and copious amounts of roughing the passer penalties, the Patriots have tightened their grip on the NFL with stifling defense. Their secondary, comprised of unwanted and undrafted rookies, “has-been” safeties, and doubted corners, leads the league with less than 7 points allowed per game (4.5 fewer points than the next best team). On a team undoubtedly led on and off the field by the G.O.A.T., the other side of the ball has found a way to shine. In the past, the Patriots have won in spite of their weak front seven or their porous secondary. In 2019, they win because of them. The Patriots are once again favorites to capture their seventh title, and their defense will guide them to it.