FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots’ defense is playoff-ready.
And that statement has little to do with the shutout it pitched — the first since beating the Titans in 2009 — in Sunday’s 28-0 victory over the Dolphins.
It has to do with how they did it, and how they’ve done it since bottoming out in the 37-31 victory against the Bills Nov. 11.
Brick by brick.
That house is now ready to live in for the postseason.
There are three things that make Bill Belichick and his staff stand out over the rest that don’t have to do with Tom Brady.
There was Belichick’s decision very early on to have offensive and defensive systems that were unique to the Patriots. Not unique in what they do, but in that the principles never change.
While other teams go through the dance of different offensive and defensive coordinators on a year-to-year basis — along with differing philosophies — the faces of the coaches calling the plays may change, but the scheme and system on both sides of the ball does not.
That gives the Patriots a huge jump-start on other teams, where players have to learn different playbooks and techniques.
There’s also the ability of the Patriot coaches to determine the strengths and weaknesses of every player, and then to accentuate the positives and hide the struggles. You only have to see the work done with last year’s defense to see a perfect example of that.
And, finally, there’s the slow and steady progression through the defensive playbook.
Go back and watch some of the early-season games. Not only did the Patriots not blitz very much, they didn’t use many exotic rushes. You’d hardly see an end-tackle stunt or twist. Forget about being teased with a zone exchange in which a linebacker comes from one side, and an end takes his place in coverage by dropping off the line. Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia would get crazy once in a while and send Brandon Spikes and/or Jerod Mayo into the A gaps between the guard and center to get Rob Ninkovich or Chandler Jones into a one-on-one situation.
Same goes for a corner or safety blitz.
In the secondary, the same holds true. Early in the season you get a lot of zone and soft off-pressure coverage by the cornerbacks. Man to man might be used on the rare occasion — almost always in the red zone or on other crucial third downs — when the Patriots brought pressure.
It’s almost as if Belichick says, “If he can prove he can do X, we’ll move onto Y. There’s no use in going to Y if he can’t accomplish X.”
That goes for the defense as a whole.
It seemingly has happened every year since the Patriots started their youth movement in 2009.
By the time the Patriots finish the season, they look like a vastly different unit than earlier in the season. Sure, the players improve as the season moves along, but the weapons at their disposal also grow.
It’s easy, because of the statistics, to point the Aqib Talib trade, the emergence of rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and the steadiness that Devin McCourty brought to the middle of the field at safety, as the reasons why the Patriots have improved on defense.
But that ignores what has happened on the field.
In the first nine games of the season, the Patriots gave up an average of 5.4 pass plays that went for 20 or more yards.
The Patriots have given up a total of five the past two games. Talib played eight ineffective plays against the Jaguars and sat out against the Dolphins (a very, very wise move). Dennard didn’t play in either game, and McCourty has played cornerback.
Admittedly, the Jaguars and Dolphins aren’t exactly breaking any offensive records, but earlier in the season, the Patriots gave big plays to everyone. They aren’t now, and that’s because the scheme is more advanced.
The coverage players are being put in a position to cover better. We’ve seen the safety be used as a robber in the middle of the field looking to jump a route depending on route recognition and the quarterback tipping the play.
“It’s been great,” safety Steve Gregory said of the communication on defense. “Guys have been really jelling over the past few weeks.”
Up front, you now never know what you’re going to get from the front seven. It could be a three-man rush. It could be a fire-zone blitz, which is a zone exchange but with an added rusher. At the least you’d get the end and tackle to run a “game” where the tackle would push outside, and the end swoops inside to try to catch an interior blocker napping.
We saw all of that Sunday against the Dolphins, when the Patriots produced a season-high seven sacks — the most since Dec. 23, 2007, against Miami. Rookie Justin Francis had three, and Vince Wilfork, Brandon Deaderick, Trevor Scott, and Derrick Martin each had one.
It happened because there was terrific symmetry between the front and back end of the defense.
“They were firing on all cylinders,” said Dolphins tackle Nate Garner.
It’s something we would not have seen earlier in the season because this is the way the Patriots do things. They don’t just get better because one player arrives, or somebody switches to a different spot.
The Patriots improve incrementally over the course of the season because that’s the way Belichick and Patricia built it. Brick by brick.
“It’s team defense,” Belichick said. “Guys were covered, the quarterback had to hold the ball, they helped the pass rush. Guys rushed well, guys covered well. When the receivers are open, it doesn’t matter what your pass rush is. If you make the quarterback hold the ball then that helps the pass rush. It was good team defense.”
That’s not to say the Patriots are some defensive dynamo or anything, and that they’ll suddenly start some long scoreless-quarters streak.
With Ninkovich possibly out for a while with a hip injury, the Patriots lose an invaluable piece that excels in versatility. No one person can replace that.
The Patriots are going to need younger players such as Jones, Deaderick, Francis, Dont’a Hightower, and Dennard to prove themselves in the playoffs.
But at least they have the tools at their disposal to win the playoffs. It’s all been building to this. Now they just have to execute at a higher level.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.