With their stifling of the Cowboys last Sunday, the New England Patriots pushed their aberrant defensive performance against the Ravens deeper into the recesses of their collective memory.
Prior to surrendering 37 points to Baltimore in their lone loss of the season in Week 9, the Patriots (10-1) had allowed a total of 34 points over the previous four games combined.
In recording consecutive wins over the Eagles and Cowboys, New England allowed 19 total points and seemingly re-established its reputation as the best defense in the NFL, doing so just prior to another stiff test on Sunday night in a visit to face the AFC South-leading Houston Texans (7-4) at NRG Stadium.
There is plenty of nuance baked into any analysis of what makes the Patriots so stout defensively. Yet sometimes, the simplest answer offers the steadiest path to seeking clarity.
“Good players,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “A lot of good players on that group and we’ve played quite a few guys. I’d say 18-20 are involved there with significant play time. But we have good depth and players that have been productive and consistent and good with their assignments and their technique, fundamentals.”
Supporting the theory of the Patriots thriving based on superior depth is the fact that four players have recorded between 40 and 58 tackles this season: linebackers Jamie Collins (58) and Dont’a Hightower (47), and linemen Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton (40 each). Cornerback Jason McCourty has 39 tackles despite missing the Dallas game with a groin injury.
The New England secondary is anchored by shutdown cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who is making a play for Defensive Player of the Year honors. Gilmore (34 tackles, four interceptions) silenced Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper and is sure to draw the assignment against Texans two-time All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins (81 receptions for 839 yards and six touchdowns).
“He’s got really good size, length, speed,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said of Gilmore. “Very smart. He’s been playing for a long time. Very instinctive, good ball skills, does a good job of being patient. He’s patient, he never panics, he’s got a lot of confidence in himself.”
Still, even in a relatively down year for the Patriots offensively, quarterback Tom Brady remains the focal point for any opposing defense. New England has struggled with consistency on offense this season, sometimes flashing past brilliance, other times struggling to mount drives.
That fact doesn’t diminish Brady or his effectiveness. O’Brien and Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel have extensive coaching histories with the Patriots, and both enter this game armed with the knowledge of what it takes to disrupt Brady and, by proxy, slow the Patriots.
Countless teams over the years have come to discover that task is much easier said than done.
“Our coaches will do a good job of giving us the right game plan, put us in the right position,” Texans linebacker Brennan Scarlett said. “Obviously they know (Brady) very well and that coaching staff very well. It will be up to us to execute, give him different looks, make sure we’re disguising and not give him answers to the test and we’ll go from there.”
—Field Level Media