By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- J.C. Jackson doesn't want to brag or boast. Buuuuttttttttt, the fourth-year cornerback/full-time interception machine had something to say after Thursday night's win.
"I don't want to brag too much but ... I feel like we've got one of the best defenses in the league right now," Jackson said.
Toward the end of his brief session with the media, he added a bit of a warning shot to the rest of the league.
"This is a big game, defense played outstanding. Like, I can't even describe ... but, we gotta keep it up," Jackson said. "It's gonna get scary. It's gonna be scary."
Jackson was, obviously, feeling it after the shutout victory on the road on a short week. Who could blame him? A shutout in the NFL against anyone is hard to come by, and with a weekend of rest lying ahead, a defensive player is obviously going to feel quite enthused about his team. Especially when he records his sixth pick of the year just for funsies near the end of that win.
The statistics do back up Jackson's case. The Patriots rank fourth in yards allowed per game, which is really saying something after allowing 567 yards to Dallas in Week 6. They're a top 10 running defense and a top 10 pass defense, with the best interception rate (4.75 percent) in the league. They're eighth in third-down defense, sixth in red zone defense, and seventh in sack rate.
And -- most importantly -- they allow the second-fewest points per game in the entire NFL. Allowing just 13 points over a three-week span will have that kind of effect.
Of course -- there's always an "of course" -- the quality of competition does matter. The Patriots shut down the Falcons, who were without Cordarrelle Patterson, Calvin Ridley, and Hayden Hurst. They shut down the Browns, who were without Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt (and OBJ, technically?). They mystified Zach Wilson, Mike White, and Sam Darnold, which ... doesn't seem exceptionally difficult.
None of that dismisses what the Patriots' defense has done this year to accumulate all those stats. But they are necessary to provide a certain level of context.
Still, that is the NFL. Sometimes you face an opponent that's operating at full strength; most times you don't. Succeeding is all about stacking W's when they're there for the taking. The Patriots are doing that, and the last three weeks have been driven by the defense.
It'll be extraordinarily fun, then, to see that unit go up against Tennessee and Buffalo in the next two weeks. Both ought to be must-see affairs.
For now, though, we've got leftover thoughts from the Patriots' 25-0 win over the Falcons.
--Two things stood out right off the bat. For one: The Patriots have a much better coaching operation than the Falcons. So all of the Bill Belichick-Arthur Smith debates can be put to bed. They're over. Bill is better. We now know this.
Secondly, the physicality in this game was almost completely driven by the Patriots. In a dead-ass stadium on a short week, the Patriots provided all of the energy in this one.
While the end product may have been kind of a slog for the viewer, the teams that win these games are just looking to get through the night with a victory.
--Another highlight was Matthew Slater getting penalized for hitting the punt returner ... only to successfully argue his way out of the penalty call. He's similar to Patrice Bergeron in that way. If you call a penalty on the guy, and he expresses disagreement, you better think long and hard about what you did.
You were probably wrong.
(I sincerely think that tinted visor gave him the extra juice he needed in these last couple of years.)
--A few years ago, the Patriots' defense had that "boogeymen" thing going on. It was fine. Matthew Judon might have incidentally created a better rallying cry for the 2021 defense:
"We kind of want to be A-holes on the field, but good guys off the field, and make sure we don't get penalized. We play within the rules, but we a nasty group. So that's how we like to play, and that's how we gotta play in order for our team to win. And we enjoy it."
It may be harder to print that one out on a T-shirt. Nevertheless, it works.
--The ultimate placement of Judon on the "best free-agent signings by Bill Belichick" will ultimately depend on Super Bowls. And just to be frank, the odds are against Judon winning multiple Super Bowls. So passing Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel on that imaginary list is likely impossible.
But that hardly matters. In terms of big-money, free-agent signings by Belichick since Part 1 of the dynasty, Judon is far and away the best of the bunch. Anecdotally, a player who cashes in at 29 years old might sit on that pile of cash and kind of go through the motions. Judon is doing the exact opposite.
He now has a career-high 10.5 sacks, reaching the mark in just 11 games. And he's a lot better than the sack totals show, as he's harassing tackles on a down-by-down basis. He blew up a double team and assisted on a tackle for a loss in the first quarter Thursday. He hit the QB three times total. He never let up, because he seemingly never lets up.
The red sleeves were a stroke of genius, as it's impossible to not notice his impact on every snap. That includes noticing the numerous times he's held without drawing a flag -- or in the case of Thursday night, the times that he's smashed in the face but nevertheless continues on into the backfield to sack the quarterback anyway.
He can even do it in Spanish:
He was lined up so wide there. I'm no defensive line coach but that seems to be stretching the bounds of "wide 9" technique. Regardless, his get-off was explosive, the right tackle was a dead duck, the running back floated inside, Judon disregarded the fact that he got blocked in the face and had his whole neck snapped back, and the sack was made. (That sack also might have prevented an 85-yard touchdown, because two Patriots defenders collided in the secondary, thus springing Kyle Pitts to end up wide open.)
In terms of attitude, production, excitement, and anything else you'd want out of a free-agent signing, Judon has delivered in every possible way.
--Speaking of free-agent additions, Jonnu Smith has probably been underwhelming. BUT ... we caught another glimpse of his YAC ability on Thursday night.
Look at where he caught this ball ...
... and where he was forced out of bounds:
Catching a ball behind the line of scrimmage with your back to the defense, then making a 17-yard gain out of it. That's impressive. Of course, it was his only gain. He had a holding penalty to negate a 13-yard run by N'Keal Harry, but that might've been a bad call.
Smith has just 210 receiving yards and one touchdown in eight games played, which isn't far off from his career production (outside of last year's anomalous 8-TD season). But it felt like the Patriots were going to get more out of their new tight end duo. Perhaps some simple plays like that one will be worked in a bit more often.
--Rhamondre Stevenson? More like Rhamondre Stiffarmingsons. Boom. (Because he is stiff-arming opponents, thus turning them into his sons, you see?)
Stevenson has been pretty damn good in his rookie year. He now has 305 yards and three touchdowns on 67 carries, good for a 4.6-yard average. He also has 12 receptions for 117 yards. And he had this sweet run which didn't count:
That cut in the backfield was sick. The jump cuts he'll occasionally throw out in the open field are legit, too.
While the Patriots would obviously be better off with a healthy James White, the solid performance of Stevenson has helped offset that loss in a big way.
--Mac Jones. Mac Jones, Mac Jones, Mac Jones. Mac Jones? Mac Jones! Sorry, just participating in the mandated Mac Jones discourse of the week.
Honestly, the discussion around Mac Jones just kind of stinks. Doesn't do it for me. Whether it's a debate about him potentially turning out like Matt Ryan or Chad Pennington, or if it's an argument about whether he's succeeding because of his own ability or because of the system and coaching around him, it's all just kind of ... uninspiring.
This rookie is out there making plays. His completion rate is absurd. It's fun to watch sometimes. Why can't that be enough? Why are we trying to forecast something 10, 15 years out? WHY?!
--Anyway, Mac was extremely accurate on Thursday, but he didn't have to be great to get the win. By my count, he made one excellent pass (to convert a third-and-5), plus one more excellent play to backpedal away from a safety blitz (to convert a third-and-4).
Here are those plays:
They happened to take place just before Jones' worst play of the night:
Damien Harris was clearly open over the middle for an easy money gain of, say, five or six yards at least. But Jones made a poor decision to whip it to Jonnu Smith, resulting in the death of a scoring drive. (A million people on Twitter -- OK, a handful of people on Twitter -- tried telling me that Jonnu was at fault for that because he didn't come back to the ball. Are people aware of physics? Or routes? Crazy pills. Mac made a bad play. It's OK to say it. Every QB makes bad plays.)
I'd frame the Mac conversation like this: Last week, the Patriots would've beaten the Browns even if Mac wasn't spectacular. But he was spectacular, and they won by a thousand. This week, the Patriots would've beaten the Falcons even if Mac wasn't spectacular. He wasn't spectacular, but he was plenty good, and they won by 25 points.
That won't stop everyone from spending a week going crazy every which way about the quarterback, because that's what people do. Sometimes, though, it's OK to not constantly talk about the quarterback.
--I had some issues with the broadcast. One moment came on this play, when two Falcons receivers collided while trying to catch a Matt Ryan pass. Joe Buck suggested a ... penalty could have been called?
Perhaps Buck sneezed during the play or something. Or perhaps it's a testament to the Falcons showing the veteran play-by-play man something he had never seen before. Either way. Indeed, no flag.
The other issue was in the fourth quarter, when Troy Aikman was doing advanced calculus for some reason when Belichick sent out the field goal unit. The Patriots led 16-0. Mac Jones was stopped just short of the line to gain on a third-and-1 sneak. Two minutes were left in the game. It was over. Yet Aikman said this:
"Well an interesting decision there by Bill Belichick. Because if they had gone for it on fourth down, and if they make it, then the game's over. And instead of trying that, he just said, 'Well, we'll kick the field goal and we'll go up three scores and end it that way.'"
Yeah, Troy, I guess he did.
Politely, I would disagree with the notion that it was an interesting decision.
Nevertheless! Perhaps Buck and Aikman were just extremely bored during the game. Hard to blame them.
--I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the historic moment of the Falcons reinventing the Zero Humans Defense on Nelson Agholor's touchdown:
Bravo! Bravo!! It's beautiful!
--I'd be remiss if I didn't spotlight a tremendous series of work from the Falcons.
Third-and-1 at the Patriots' 14-yard line. Matt Ryan somehow loses 13 yards on a sack. Younghoe Koo hits the unnecessarily difficult 45-yard field goal on fourth down, but it's called back due to ... illegal formation? Have you ever seen that on a field goal? It's not ideal.
Koo of course missed the resulting 50-yarder. Atlanta never made it that deep into Patriots territory again.
Good to know Matt Ryan still can't resist losing big yardage to hurt his team's field goal chances when playing against the Patriots. Kind of his forte.
--Señor Ice did have the best throw of the night though, no joke:
Slick. (That one being the best throw of the night indicates that it wasn't a banner day for quarterbacking.
--Speaking of which! Not to pick on Josh Rosen but his story is wild. The 10th overall pick in 2018. The fourth QB taken. He's now on his fifth NFL team in four years. He's thrown one touchdown and seven interceptions since 2019.
Rosen was discussed as a top QB coming out of UCLA. With Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson considered top-tier talents, Rosen was right there with them. And now he's chucking pick-sixes at the end of miserable blowout losses and then giving way to a fella named Feleippe "No That's Not A Typo" Franks.
Sports are hard. Let us never forget that. (That's why all the senseless Mac chatter irks me a bit. The athletes are doing athletic things on the field. Sometimes people lose sight of that.)
--People love highlights, right? One-handed catches. Powerful runs. Beautiful passes. Yee-haw.
But sometimes, games are won with plays that aren't exactly Top 10 worthy on SportsCenter.
Take, for instance, the run stuffs on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 by the Patriots' defense:
To some people, those plays aren't very sexy. To others, they define the term.
In any event. Let's say the Falcons get the yard on one of those snaps and find their way into the end zone. We're looking at a wholly different fourth quarter. Those were some big-time plays, and the dominance of Carl Davis over the center on fourth down was magnificent, as was Adrian Phillips flying in on both plays.
--When they were 4-4, I said we'd learn a lot about the Patriots in the three weeks that followed. Winning a second straight road game is hard, but they did that with ease in Carolina. Beating the Browns figured to potentially be hard, but they made that look easy. And winning on the road on a short week is always difficult, but the Patriots got the job done.
Now at 7-4, they've made up for one of their early-season losses (Miami or New Orleans, take your pick). If you conservatively project the rest of their season, foreseeing a split with Buffalo, a loss to Tennessee, and wins against the Colts, Jaguars and Dolphins, then you're looking at an 11-6 season.
That's ... kind of what we all agreed upon as a realistic expectation for this team.
They've still got to actually get there, but this five-game winning streak has them on the path that didn't look to be all that possible after Week 6.
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