Unlike the Cleveland Browns, the Patriots defense wasn’t a bust on Week 1. It lived up to the hype.
Bill Belichick’s unit effectively shut down Ben Roethlisberger & Co. at Gillette on opening night.
The play of the defense has taken a back seat to the Antonio Brown signing and subsequent civil lawsuit brought against the Patriots receiver.
While the allegations of rape are serious, let’s hit the pause button on Brown for a moment and revisit what happened in the first game. Let’s take a closer look at the defense.
What’s interesting were the answers we received after asking several analysts what impressed them most about the unit after watching the defense perform against the Steelers during the 33-3 rout.
The answers highlighted a few different elements. That might be the best indicator of having a great unit.
We’ll start with NBC analyst and former Patriot Rodney Harrison. He singled out the secondary.
As a former safety, that might not come as a surprise, but in the past, it’s also an area where he’s been most critical.
“They went man-to-man the entire game. It was really impressive,” Harrison said when reached last week. “A lot of times with defensive coordinators, they have to blitz and do certain things with their front guys because they can’t play a lot of man-to-man, but the Patriots can play man-to-man against a lot of the best weapons out there. I was just thoroughly impressed with that.”
It started with Stephon Gilmore effectively neutralizing JuJu Smith-Schuster, or taking him out to the point Roethlisberger often looked elsewhere. Most of the time, he tried Donte Moncrief, but all he got from 10 attempts to his No. 2 wideout were three completions for seven yards. Jason McCourty was the primary defender on Moncrief. Along with Gilmore and McCourty, slot corner Jon Jones also played well. He pretty much handled Ryan Switzer, although he had one terrific break-up on a long ball to Johnny Holton in the first quarter.
Safeties Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon also had strong games in coverage. We didn’t even get to see rookie corner JoeJuan Williams. He didn’t play, but figures to be a good matchup defender down the road given his height.
“It’s ridiculous the amount of depth they have,” said Harrison.
Former Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich, now an ESPN analyst, agreed with Harrison.
“Coverage . . . the secondary played really well,” Ninkovich said via text when asked what impressed him the most. “The front should have had more sacks.”
The Patriots were sack kings during the preseason. While they did mount pressure against Roethlisberger, they didn’t produce sacks. Defensive end Deatrich Wise had the lone strip sack.
SiriusXM NFL analyst Solomon Wilcots, while impressed with the secondary, also pointed to effort, and doing the little things right as a unit.
“I loved their coverages on the back end. They know what their doing, they know how to take people away, and they’re getting pressure,” said Wilcots. “They just play hard. They’re a physical team. They’re a smart team, and they’re a team that gives great effort. That’s a team that’s hard to beat.
“But Belichick majors in the little things, so they’re going to be physical,” he went on. “They’re not going to beat themselves, and they’re going to play hard. Look at Cleveland. All that talent. They got eighteen flippin’ penalties. Five personal fouls. One ejection. They’re majoring in all the other stuff but not taking care of the little things. All that talent and can’t get the little things right. Bill Belichick builds his teams on getting the little things right. Let’s block, let’s tackle, let’s not beat ourselves, let’s be smart, let’s be prepared, and let’s play with great energy, and let’s play hard.”
The Steelers converted just 3 of 12 third down attempts. They had several third-and-one scenarios, and were stuffed every time. At one point, after several failed tries at the goal line, they wound up kicking a field goal on fourth-and-one, down 20-0 in the third quarter.
“They were worn out,” said Wilcots. “Every inch, every blade of grass came at a price. And they couldn’t take it. It’s as simple as that. (The Steelers) are the ones who usually play hard, but they’re the ones who got outplayed in the effort category.”