EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 23, 2013

Time to see how good Pats 'D' really is

Bill Burt
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — FOXBORO — The gimmees are officially over.

Your New England Patriots, offensively-challenged and all, finished off their seven-game exhibition season with a semi-convincing, 23-3, win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Yes, seven games, including the four preseason tilts. Did you really think I’d count the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and the Buccaneers with their quarterback situations (two rookies and a mess)?

Lost in the Tom-Brady-doesn’t-have-any-weapons debate the last month is that the Patriots’ defense has looked pretty good, maybe even good, in September.

If you take away the Stevan Ridley fumble return for a touchdown in the opener in Buffalo, the Patriots have allowed only 27 points over the last three exhibitions ... I mean, first three games of this 2013 season.

And in New England, under coach Bill Belichick, points is a big, big deal, on both sides of the ball.

“We’re always talking about that the biggest stat for us is points allowed,” said Patriots defensive captain Vince Wilfork. “For the past three weeks I think we’ve done a really good job of just holding our opponents to low scoring games. Obviously that is something we work on. The red area (inside the 20-yard line) is another big area for us. Third down is a big area us. I think we stepped up big time today.”

Today, or yesterday, yes, it was nice. It has been trending this way since the “real” games started in September.

But it’s not enough to lay down any sort of gauntlet. Instead of rookies and soon-to-be benched quarterbacks, the Patriots face a pair of $100 million QBs, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (next Sunday night) and New Orleans’ Drew Brees (two weeks later) and an up-and-comer in Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton in between.

This Patriots defense, though deserves some kudos.

Aqib Talib has become the Patriots’ shutdown caliber cornerback, the first since Asante Samuel. This might be the No. 1 reason this Patriots defense isn’t a fool’s gold. The fact that he can cover a physical presence like Vincent Jackson (6-foot-5, 230 pounds), without help is all you need to know. Before Jackson left the game with a rib injury, he had only three catches (six targets) for 34 yards.

Talib also made the play of the game, cutting in front of Jackson in the final seconds of the first half and intercepting a Josh Freeman pass, setting up the back-breaking 53-yard field goal as time expired for a 17-3 lead.

The other key element to this defense’s success, that we may be understating, is this is the unit’s second year together. Ten of the 11 starters for most of 2012, are full-timers in this season.

“I don’t know if people understand how important that is, that we know each other a little better,” said Patriots safety Steve Gregory. “We definitely feel more comfortable together.”

While the Patriots defense has done an admirable job, statistically, thus far — last two games opposing QBs are 34-for-76 (45 percent), 0 TDs, 4 interceptions — there are still some lingering questions like, how good is this defense?

“I feel we’re playing pretty well,” said Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, who had a part in two sacks (he was credited with one full sack).

When prodded again, about how good he really thought the Patriots defense was, he didn’t waver.

“I feel we’re playing pretty well,” he said.

That’s a good answer, a very good answer. Because it’s the truth. And it’s a start.

Three weeks from now, “pretty well” probably won’t be good enough.

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.