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Christopher L. Gasper

Patriots defense has something to prove, too — that it can beat the high-level quarterbacks

Patriots linebacker Jahlani Tavai (center) tackled Packers running back AJ Dillon in the first half of their preseason game Friday.Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

Popular sentiment regarding the Patriots is that it’s Mac Jones and the offense that must turn a 120-yard-by-53⅓-yard patch into a proving ground. Jones indeed needs to demonstrate he can be the answer at quarterback, and the production value of the offense is the team’s biggest question mark.

But let’s not leave out the Patriots defense from the proving process. There’s less concern and skepticism surrounding the unit. However, you can’t completely absolve the defense from last year’s disappointing 8-9 mark and playoff DNQ. It beat and beat up on underqualified quarterbacks and borderline NFL starters with aplomb, but those displays of dominance dissipated against upper-echelon quarterbacks and established starters.


For the Patriots to regain access behind the velvet rope of the postseason, a talented and experienced defense has to prove it can defeat exactly the genus of quarterback that Jones is striving to become. That’s the two-pronged plan for a Patriots revival — get a higher level of QB play and slow down higher-end QBs.

The Patriots fielded a top-10 defense last season (eighth in total defense at 322 yards per game) and ranked seventh in offensive points allowed (313). It undoubtedly was the strength of the team. It projects to be again with its experience and depth despite some questions at cornerback and the retirement of stalwart safety Devin McCourty.

However, the divide between how the Patriots played defensively in wins and losses and whom those results came against tells a more complex story and provides a caveat for automatically assuming its prowess.

In eight wins last season, the Patriots allowed just a 54.9 percent completion percentage, six touchdowns vs. 11 interceptions, and a paltry 1,501 yards passing (187.6 per game) They yielded a 63.8 passer rating and notched 32 sacks. The passing yards allowed per game would’ve ranked fifth in the league for a full season.


Except for Jared Goff, who would have a better chance decoding cuneiform than deciphering a Bill Belichick defense, the opposing passers in those wins aren’t visiting the Pro Bowl any time soon unless they purchase a ticket.

Here’s the list: Zach Wilson (twice, what a gift), Mitch Trubisky, Jacoby Brissett, Goff, Sam Ehlinger, Colt McCoy, and the combination of Teddy Bridgewater/Skylar Thompson.

What, no Hugh Millen?

Shutting out Goff, who made the Pro Bowl last year in his second season with the Lions after being dumped by the Rams, was the most impressive defensive performance of the season.

In New England’s nine losses, the Patriots defense was more pedestrian and permeable. The unit allowed a 66.8 percent completion percentage, 22 TDs vs. eight interceptions, and 2,180 passing yards (242.2 per game). It surrendered an opposing passer rating of 101.7 and recorded 22 sacks.

The yards per game would’ve ranked 28th in the NFL for a full season; the Patriots finished 16th overall in pass defense (216.5).

Here’s the list of opposing passers from their losses: Tua Tagovailoa, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, Justin Fields, Kirk Cousins, Josh Allen (twice), Derek Carr, and Joe Burrow.

Aaron Rodgers was one of several high-profile quarterbacks who helped take down the Patriots last season — and he's now in the division, with the Jets.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

To keep the stat (crazy) train rolling, the Patriots yielded 86 points in eight wins last season. They surrendered 261 points in their nine losses, 29 per game.

(Not all of those points were on the defense. The Patriots losses featured three kickoff-return touchdowns. In a 30-24 loss to the Raiders, the winning touchdown came via a disastrous lateral attempt returned for a touchdown by former Patriot Chandler Jones.)


I pointed out the dichotomy of the defense’s performance based on quality of quarterback to its best player, Matthew Judon. I asked if he felt the defense had something to prove.

“Aw, you hating,” said the affable Judon, drawing some laughs before delivering a thoughtful answer.

“I feel like we’re just going out there, and we’re trying to be better every day. I talked about it on the radio Monday, but we’re returning a lot of guys who played a lot of snaps.

“We got to be better. We got to be more cohesive, and we got to be able to be more fluid, move around, in and out of positions, in and out of plays, in and out of coverages, in and out of looks.

“Just keep the offense on their toes where … they’re just blocking spots and stuff like that. So, when we can do that, we can cause havoc for an offense. But those are hating questions.”

Matthew Judon is part of a Patriots defense that will hope for better results against the NFL's top quarterbacks in 2023.Greg M. Cooper/Associated Press

Or relevant ones.

The schedule this season is packed with playmaking quarterbacks, especially with Rodgers joining the division rival Jets. The Patriots are going to see more quality arms than a Chaim Bloom farm system fever dream.

More than ever, the NFL is a quarterback league. The Patriots will need to close the Quarterback Gap on both sides of the ball, not just Mac’s.


Barring injury, they’ll face Jalen Hurts; Tagovailoa, who has never lost to New England, twice; Rodgers (twice); Josh Allen (twice); Dak Prescott; the NFL’s highest-paid QB in Justin Herbert, whom they’ve confounded the way they once did Allen; and two-time Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes, the NFL’s Steph Curry. That’s 10 of 17 games.

I’m omitting the Artist Formerly Known as Russell Wilson, who could undergo a renaissance in Denver with Sean Payton, and Jimmy Garoppolo, the man Belichick once wanted to turf Tom Brady to clear the way for in Foxborough.

Safety Adrian Phillips praised the progress that Jones has displayed this preseason, rebounding from a nightmarish 2022.

“I just think overall he’s a way better quarterback,” Phillips said Tuesday. “He took last year on the chin. He’ll be the first one to tell you that. That’s not how he wanted to play, and for all of us that’s not how any of us wanted to play. He’ll be the first to tell you that.

“He’s coming out here every single day, and he’s trying to light our defense up. Like literally light us up.”

Jones elevating his game and lighting up the defense can only help the defense do a better job controlling the capable quarterbacks it will face, which is a prerequisite for a Patriots renaissance.

The Patriots need better quarterback play this season. That’s a given, but it applies to both sides of the ball.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him @cgasper and on Instagram @cgaspersports.