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Hurley: Yes, The Patriots' Suffocating Defense Is As Elite As The Stats Suggest

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Patriots' defense utterly and completely dominated an opponent for the entirety of Sunday afternoon's football game.

This time, Bill Belichick's defensive unit tried out a new ploy by instilling a brief sense of doubt early on, when they allowed receiver Steven Sims (who?) to take a handoff on a tricky little play, break a couple of tackles and then fly down the sideline for a 65-yard touchdown.

It took until Week 5, but the Patriots finally trailed in a football game.

The doubt ended there, though, at least from a defensive standpoint, as the Redskins' remaining drives in the football game looked like this:

-7 yards, Punt
14 yards, Punt
0 yards, Punt
4 yards, Fumble
25 yards, Punt
0 yards, Interception
3 yards, End of Half
25 yards, Punt
14 yards, Punt
9 yards, Punt
11 yards, Punt
0 yards, Punt
23 yards, End of Game

The Redskins converted just one of their 11 third downs, and after scoring their lone touchdown, they never moved the ball deeper than the Patriots' 45-yard line ... and that was on the final drive of the game.

With that kind of defensive showing, not much was needed from the Patriots' offense in order to secure a road victory. Nevertheless, Tom Brady picked up the slack from the first half, leading the Patriots on three touchdown drives in the second half to make it a 33-7 blowout.

Devin McCourty, who along with twin brother Jason allowed Sims to slip through on that touchdown, admitted that the Patriots' defense had one bad play. After that, a pair of forced turnovers deep in Washington territory changed the game for good.

"Yeah that's something we talk about each week, turning the ball over. Both of those are really good plays," McCourty said of the interception made by Jason as well as the fumble forced by Jonathan Jones and recovered by Jamie Collins. "I think that's really what got the game going, being able to turn the ball over. And then being able to come back in the second half and not missing a beat and doing a good job of coming out ready to go."

Of course, whenever discussing the defense of the 2019 Patriots defense, you cannot make much progress without mentioning the lack of quality in opposing offenses. It is a prerequisite to the discussion. And surely, Colt McCoy -- he of a 7-21 record as a starting quarterback, he of just seven starts over the last eight seasons -- did not represent an NFL-caliber opposing quarterback in this contest.

The Redskins entered Sunday with the fifth-worst scoring offense in the NFL. They won't be moving up those ranks any time soon.

That much is, naturally, understood. Yet this is also the point where it becomes important to make an important distinction that the Patriots aren't just doing OK against bad competition. They are not merely succeeding on defense.

Through five games, the Patriots have put forth one of the most suffocating collective defensive efforts in football history. Period.

Bad competition be damned, the Patriots have allowed opposing offenses to score just two touchdowns through 300 minutes of professional football. First half, second half, crunch time, or garbage time, there just is no penetrating this Patriots defense.

They've now intercepted 11 passes and they've recorded a fumble recovery. They also registered six sacks on Sunday bringing their season total to 24; they've recorded five or more sacks in four straight games.

As a team, the Patriots have allowed 34 points, but the defense has been responsible for just 20 of those points. Twenty points -- two touchdowns and two field goals -- through five full football games.

Through five games, the Patriots' defense has scored as many touchdowns as it has allowed.

Jamie Collins
Jamie Collins celebrates after a strip sack on Colt McCoy. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Comparisons are what they are, and comparing a team from one era with certain opponents to a team from a different era with different opponents is not entirely a valuable exercise. Nevertheless, this is sports, so we work with what we can.

And so, we can say that the 2019 Patriots defense has allowed 20 points through five games, and we can say that the 2000 Ravens defense allowed 55 points through five games.

Granted, the Ravens managed to fit three shutouts in those five games, and their level of competition included two decent offenses. The Patriots meanwhile have faced five offenses which all rank in the bottom third of the league, including three of the worst five offenses in the NFL.

Still, we have eyes, and we have brains. And they are telling us that the talent at all three levels on this Patriots defense is immense. The secondary, linebackers and defensive linemen are all varied levels of elite, and while some better offenses and better quarterbacks will surely put a few more points on the board than the Luke Falks and Colt McCoys of the world, there should be no doubt that this Patriots defense has the personnel to maintain a historic level of defense.

And for as much has been made about the Who's Who of bad quarterbacks that has paraded before New England's defense, there is an equally important storyline that's being overshadowed. That would be the fact that in three of the Patriots' five games played, a significant contributor was missing from the defense.

Starting outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy missed Week 1 due to the birth of his son; the Patriots allowed three points without him.

Starting inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower missed Week 4 due to a shoulder injury; the Patriots allowed 10 points without him.

Starting safety Patrick Chung missed Sunday's game due to a heel injury; the Patriots allowed seven points without him.

Van Noy ranked third on the Patriots in defensive snap counts last year, while Chung ranked fourth and Hightower ranked sixth.

Regardless of the opponent, for a team to continue to play stifling defense without integral members on the field for entire games is an achievement that few teams could accomplish. It's something that can only be done with a depth chart full of players who both understand the intricacies of the playbook while possessing the talent to make plays.

"It's great. We have crazy depth," Hightower said after putting forth an overwhelming, All-Pro performance against the Redskins. "In that [linebackers] room alone, we got guys who can play outside linebacker, inside linebacker, defensive end. I mean, we can put John Simon at the nose, I'm at the nose, Jamie's at the nose, the 3, the 4, the 5. Literally, the more you can do, Bill always says. And whenever you're versatile, and we're able to communicate, we're able to give offenses different things each and every week.

"Because we know it and we're smart enough to make changes on the move, sometimes it might look like a different look, sometimes it might look the same, but we always keep things moving."

They won't stop any time soon, either. Rookie quarterback Daniel Jones and the Giants visit Gillette this upcoming Thursday. The Patriots will then have 11 days to prepare for Sam Darnold and the New York Jets (9.75 points per game) on Monday Night Football in the Meadowlands, before welcoming the hit-or-miss Browns to Gillette in Week 8. The Ravens technically represent a top offense, thanks to their 59 points against the Dolphins and some garbage time points against the Chiefs. But they've come back down to earth in a big way since the start of the year, with Lamar Jackson throwing for just 161 yards with three interceptions in Sunday's win in Pittsburgh. (Tom Brady lit up that same defense for 341 yards and three touchdowns with no picks.)

After that, there will be the Cowboys and the Eagles, teams that technically carry top-10 offenses but clearly have their warts. After a trip to Houston, where the Texans just put 53 on the scoreboard one week after scoring 10 points, and a home date against the top-ranked Chiefs, the Patriots will close out their season against the dreadful offenses of the Bengals, Bills and Dolphins.

You get the idea: The competition has been bad thus far, but aside from the Chiefs, every upcoming opponent has a fair number of offensive warts. Meanwhile, defensively speaking, the Patriots have none.

Even if the Patriots have one or two subpar defensive performances, it will hardly make a dent in their place among the rest of the NFL's teams. They own the No. 1 defense in terms of yards allowed per game, having allowed 37 fewer yards than Buffalo, the second-ranked team. Patriots opponents have a combined passer rating of 44.0; Buffalo ranks second, at 66.9. The Patriots lead the league with 11 interceptions, almost twice as many as the two teams tied for second with six apiece.

The Patriots also own the No. 1 defense in terms of points allowed per game, even when you include the two touchdowns allowed by the Patriots' offense and special teams, having allowed just 6.8 points per game. Chicago ranks second, having allowed 13.8 points per game.

Put it another way: The Patriots' defense is twice as good as the NFL's second-best defense.

So while some numbers and stats may be slightly inflated, the tremendous level of sheer dominance should be screaming to the rest of the football world to not dismiss any of what is taking place on a weekly basis with New England's defense.

This unit is elite. This unit is dominant. And though the degree of difficulty will rise to varying degrees in terms of opposing offenses in the coming months, the Patriots have shown nothing to indicate that they're incapable of standing up to them all.

The questions to this point of the season have all revolved around the quality of Patriots' opponents, or lack thereof, but it's now time to stop asking the questions. The Patriots have supplied the answer.

Yes, they are as good as they are showing you. Stats aside and regardless of opponent, anyone who's witnessed their consistency and dominance should have no problem believing this to be true.

Michael Bennett and Dont'a Hightower
Michael Bennett and Dont'a Hightower sack Colt McCoy. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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