Unless you’re talking about takeaways and turnover margin, it’s been rare in recent seasons to see the Patriots near the NFL lead in defensive categories.
Not so through three games this season. In starting 3-0 for the first time since 2007, the Patriots have shown some teeth without the ball. They’re eighth in total defense (sixth against the pass), outpacing the offense, which is 17th in the early going. More important, only one team has allowed fewer than the 34 points given up by New England in wins over the Bills, Jets, and Buccaneers. The league leader in points allowed? Seattle, with 27.
The Patriots are the only team, however, yet to allow any points in the fourth quarter. That stat might get tested Sunday night in Atlanta against the Falcons, who dropped to 1-2 with this past Sunday’s loss at Miami. But for now, nobody has been able to score on New England after the third quarter.
“It’s been good so far, but we’ll see,” coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday during the weekly coaches’ conference call. “What we did against one team doesn’t necessarily mean that will happen against the next team. It’s starting all over again, this week against a very good offense, very explosive offense, very experienced group. These guys have been doing it for a long time with a lot of the same players, a lot of the same coaches and system and so forth.
“It’s good that we’ve been able to finish games where we’ve made stops at the end. That’s been good, it’s something we’ve preached and work hard at, but we’ll see whether we can do it again this week. To this point, it’s certainly been a positive that that group has played well for 60 minutes.”
The Patriots have outscored their three opponents, 9-0, in the fourth quarter, winning games by 2, 3, and 20 points. So there have been plenty of tense fourth-quarter defensive series so far.
“For us, it’s important as we take each game each week, to try to really improve throughout the game, certainly then that would lead us into the fourth-quarter situations that come up,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said.
“At that point in the game is when every play becomes more critical than the previous play, that’s when you’ve really got to focus and play your best, get everybody on the same page of what we’re trying to accomplish.
“It’s certainly a point of emphasis for us, that as the game goes on each play becomes more critical than the previous play, because they’re kind of running out of plays at that point. You really want to go out and execute to your fullest ability, do your job exactly how we need it to get done, along with the communication factor that we already stress and emphasize.”
Atlanta’s offense might start with former Boston College star Matt Ryan, but the quarterback’s favorite receiver is Julio Jones, one of the best young talents in the league.
Through three games, Jones is tied for the NFL lead in receptions with Julian Edelman of the Patriots. Each has 27 catches, but the big difference is in the number of yards. Jones is much more of a vertical threat; his 27 grabs have gone for 373 yards (also a league best), while Edelman has 201 yards.
Belichick raved about Jones, a 24-year-old who played his college ball at Alabama then went sixth overall to the Falcons in the 2011 draft. In 32 career games, Jones has caught 20 touchdown passes.
“I think Julio has done a great job for them — he’s an excellent football player, period,” Belichick said. “As a receiver, he’s got good strength, good speed, good ball skills, he can make acrobatic catches, goes up and takes the ball away from defenders, strong after the catch, tough guy to tackle.
“He’s also very good in the running game, good blocker, a guy that will go in and get linebackers or safeties. He’s about as good as anyone in the league. It’s not just his receiving skills, although they are very good. He’s a complete football player, I know he’s a tough kid and a hard worker. I’m sure they’re very happy he’s on their team.”
Din in the dome
It’s been almost three years since the Patriots played a regular-season game in a dome. That came on Nov. 25, 2010, a lopsided Thanksgiving Day win at Detroit. If Ryan and Jones get the Falcons offense going, it’ll get loud in the Georgia Dome. Real loud. Which will make it difficult for the Patriots, especially on offense. Communication — often the silent kind — will be key.
“I know we’ll practice with noise this week,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “We definitely expect it to be an exciting environment, it always is when you play down there in Atlanta: It’s inside, and they have a really good football team, and I’m sure they’ll be excited to play.
“There’s no shortcut to that. You’ve got to do a good job of communicating during the week, you’ve got to practice well with the noise and the distraction that the noise creates. You have to eliminate all unnecessary communication as you can, so that you can just get out there, hear what you need to hear, and go execute your job.”
The Patriots have dropped their past two games when appearing on “Sunday Night Football.” Both came last season: They lost at Baltimore (31-30) on Sept. 23, and lost at home on Dec. 16 to the 49ers, 41-34 . . . The win against the Buccaneers earned a 30.8 local television rating. It’s the second-highest Week 3 figure in team history, surpassed only by last season’s loss at Baltimore (36.1) . . . With touchdown passes in 51 consecutive games, Tom Brady is closing in on the NFL record, held by Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who had a scoring toss in 54 straight games. Brady would be looking to tie the record against Brees and the Saints on Oct. 13.Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.