FOXBOROUGH — The 2013 season has seen a bit of a role reversal for the Patriots. They’re winning, as usual, but the offense has been struggling while the defense has been downright dominant.
The Patriots haven’t had a top-10 defense in points and yards allowed since 2008, but they’re well on their way this season. The overall stats through three games are pretty spectacular:
■ Second in points allowed (11.3 per game).
■ Tied for eighth in total defense (309 yards per game).
■ Tied for fifth in turnovers created (seven).
■ Sixth against the pass (188.3 yards per game).
■ Tied for eighth on third-down conversions allowed.
■ Tied for 12th in red zone defense.
■ And, most impressively, they are the only NFL team to have allowed zero points in the fourth quarter.
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich, one of the main reasons for the impressive performance, says it means very little.
“I don’t want to hear it,” he said Wednesday as the Patriots began preparations for Sunday night’s game at Atlanta. “All these games we’ve played are behind us. This year we’re playing well, but we still have to improve and just continue to do a better job.”
Read a newspaper, turn on local sports radio, or load a Patriots message board onto your web browser, and the topic is probably about the problems with the Patriots offense.
Is Tom Brady on the same page as his rookie receivers? Why is Brady missing some wide-open throws? Can they still be elite without Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez? Will Rob Gronkowski be the same “Gronk” when he comes back?
And it’s true, this certainly has not been the Patriots offense everyone has come to expect since Brady began lighting up scoreboards in 2007. They’re averaging just 19.7 points per game, 22d-most in the NFL, and they are dead last in red zone offense, scoring a touchdown on slightly more than 30 percent of opportunities.
But the Patriots’ offense isn’t the team’s biggest question mark as it prepares for the Falcons.
Frankly, we know what this team is going to give us — or won’t give us — each Sunday. They’re going to be a grind-it-out, ball-control type of offense until Danny Amendola, Gronkowski, and Shane Vereen return, and even then, it’s probably not wise to expect the same offensive fireworks that were produced the last five years. The fact they’ve defeated three stout defenses in the Bills, Jets, and Buccaneers with limited personnel is actually kind of impressive.
But the defense? It has been playing like the Steel Curtain through three games, but this unit still has far more questions that need to be answered, thanks mostly to the level of competition.
Their three games have been against Bills rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel making his first NFL start, Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith making his first start in a nationally televised night game, and Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman, whose coach finally couldn’t take his shaky play and benched him for good Wednesday morning.
It’s not the Patriots’ fault they’ve played a trio of cupcake offenses to start the season, but let’s not pretend they’ve been facing Joe Montana or Peyton Manning — the Bills are 20th in points scored, the Jets 26th, and the Bucs 31st. It’s highly doubtful any of those teams will be playing in January.
We don’t know how good the secondary is, or if the pass rush is improved, or if having defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and cornerback Aqib Talib have turned the defense into a dominant unit.
Their next three games, against Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, and New Orleans’s Drew Brees, should give a much better indication of how good the defense can be. Until then, the stats the Patriots have produced are just fool’s gold.
Coach Bill Belichick recognizes this, and his message to his defense has been the same as it has with his offense and special teams units:
“It’s September. We still have a long way to go, a lot of things we can improve on,” Belichick said Wednesday. “There are some things that we found out over the first three weeks that we would do a little bit differently knowing what we know now that we didn’t know then, and I’m sure that will be true in some of the succeeding weeks.
“That’s part of our job, too, is to figure out what’s best for this team – not some other team, but this group of players and what’s our best chance to put together a good team that can win. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
The one area of the defense that hasn’t improved much from last year is the pass rush. The Patriots finished tied for 18th in the NFL last season with 37 sacks, and have seven through three games – on pace for, yes, 37.
Some of it has been by design — the Patriots’ plan the first three weeks has been to blitz sparingly, keep the young quarterbacks in the pocket, and make them beat the Patriots with their arm. And it has worked well, as the stats prove.
But give Ryan, Dalton, or Brees that much time in the pocket, and the Patriots’ defense will be picked apart.
“You can’t relax on these guys,” Ninkovich said of the Falcons. “They’re a really good team, got good weapons, good quarterback that can throw every pass you can think of. We just have to do a good job of not letting him stand back there and be comfortable.”
All this said, the Patriots’ defense has the pieces to be very good. Ninkovich has been dominant in run coverage, and Chandler Jones already has three sacks. Talib leads the NFL with three interceptions, Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard, and Devin McCourty have made great plays in the secondary, and Dont’a Hightower is developing into a solid three-down linebacker.
But the memory of Joe Flacco and the Ravens running up and down the field on the Patriots in January’s AFC Championship game is still fresh. Let’s not pretend that just because the Patriots have shut down the Bills, Jets, and Bucs that the defense is championship-caliber.
Not yet, at least.
“It’s the very beginning of the season, and we don’t pay attention to a lot of those things except for trying to win the ball game and putting our team in the best position to win every time we go out on the field,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said.
“That’s all we’re really trying to do. We’re trying to get better than we [were] last game, play better than we did last week, and obviously this week is a huge challenge for us with Atlanta and the different problems that they present.”Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin