FOXBOROUGH — Malcolm Butler didn’t have trouble explaining the difference in the Patriots’ defense over the last three weeks. The improvements are quite apparent, actually.
“Communication,” Butler said after the Patriots’ dominant 23-7 win over the Falcons on Sunday night. “No big plays, tackled well, competing all the way through. Just playing smarter and better. That’s all.”
Don’t look now, but the Patriots’ defense has strung together three straight solid performances after a historically bad start to the season. The Patriots allowed just 12.7 points per game against the Buccaneers, Jets, and Falcons, holding all three to fewer than 20.
And they finally, mercifully, kept an opposing quarterback under 300 yards. Matt Ryan passed for just 233 as the secondary, playing without No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore and No. 3 corner Eric Rowe, played fast, played with confidence, and played like they did last year, when the Patriots allowed the fewest points in the NFL.
“We’re excited, just ’cause we finally see our hard work coming into [place],” safety Duron Harmon said. “It’s not perfect. We still left some plays out there, we still did some things we know we need to learn from. I just feel like the energy that we played with, the excitement, how fast, physical we played, kind of covered up a lot of the mistakes.”
If the Patriots made mistakes in Sunday night’s Super Bowl rematch, they certainly weren’t obvious — and not just because of the thick fog that enveloped Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots had their I’s dotted and their T’s crossed all night long, making sure they didn’t have any of the massive communication and coverage breakdowns that plagued them throughout the first chunk of the season.
This Falcons’ offense is not the same juggernaut that steamrolled the Patriots for three quarters back in February, but it is still a dangerous unit with Ryan, Julio Jones, and a two-headed running back tandem. They entered the game fifth in total offense and 12th in points scored.
The Patriots, though, held the Falcons to just 343 yards, and kept them out of the end zone for almost 55 minutes. The Falcons converted just 2 of 9 third-down opportunities and held the ball for only 25:55.
But the best stat of the night for the Patriots’ defense: the Falcons’ longest play was only 22 yards. No coverage mixups in the secondary, and no receivers running track meets up and down the field, like the Panthers did three weeks ago in the last game in Foxborough.
“We felt we had a really good game plan,” safety Devin McCourty said. “I think we kind of knew if we executed and played to it we’d have a great chance to go out there and win today.”
McCourty and Harmon played two-deep safety all night, to take away the deep plays. Jones caught nine passes for 99 yards and a touchdown, but his longest catch was for just 16 yards.
The Falcons had to earn every inch on Sunday night. No freebies.
“I thought they did a good job. You had seen some of the things they had given up earlier in the year,” Ryan said. “I thought they played a lot of two-shell coverages, dropped eight defenders in coverage quite a bit. I thought they did a good job of keeping things in front of them for the most part tonight.”
And they did it with Johnson Bademosi, a special teamer who didn’t play a defensive snap for the first five weeks, playing the majority of snaps in Gilmore’s place for the second straight game.
“He’s been doing amazing, man,” Harmon said. “For him to fill in the role that he’s been filling in, covering Julio, covering everybody, he’s been playing phenomenal and I’m really excited for him. This guy just got here and he’s playing really good football at corner for us.”
Not only did the Patriots step up against a potent offense on Sunday night, they did it against a desperate offense, too. Three times the Falcons went for it on fourth down in situations that usually scream punt or field goal, and the Patriots stopped two of them. Ryan picked up a fourth-and-7 with a scramble, but the Patriots shut down a fourth-and-6 at midfield right before halftime, and then stuffed the Falcons on the 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter to put the game to bed.
“That just shows you how big they thought this game was,” Harmon said of the Falcons’ fourth-down gambles. “They wanted to win, they wanted to keep their offense out there. But it’s a testament to what we did.”
The last fourth-down play was the perfect example of how far the Patriots’ defense has come over the last month. Taylor Gabriel went in motion and took a jet sweep handoff, and Kyle Van Noy snuffed it out perfectly for a 5-yard loss.
Four weeks ago, that’s probably a walk-in touchdown.
“The communication at that point was amazing,” Harmon said. “Devin got everybody set up, Kyle Van Noy recognized the speed sweep motion, and made one heck of a play.”
When we last saw the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, the Panthers were scoring uncontested touchdowns and defensive players were standing in the locker room openly wondering why they couldn’t communicate well enough with each other.
Just three weeks later, the Patriots players stood in the locker room talking about a near-shutout and how they clamped down on one of the most potent offenses in the league.
“We’re just better,” Harmon said. “From the Panthers game on to now, we just continue to get better. We continue to come to work, we continue to work together, we try to find the best combination of players that we can put out there, and everybody goes out there and does a great job of working hard.”