Patriots defense has been impenetrable — but also lightly challenged

Jamie Collins and his mates have had a lot to bark about so far.
Jamie Collins and his mates have had a lot to bark about so far.matthew j. lee/Globe Staff

There’s defense and then there’s the brand of demoralizing, oppressive point prevention the Patriots are featuring through five games this season. Merely calling it defense feels like underselling it, akin to calling Stonehenge some neat rocks. It’s beyond dominance. It’s full-blown offensive suppression on a scale we’ve never seen.

Bill Belichick’s Boogeymen (trademark Dont’a Hightower) have been a waking nightmare for opposing offenses. They rank first in the league in points per game allowed at 6.8 — a number that includes touchdowns scored on special teams and defense by the Jets that really shouldn’t count against the defense’s ledger. When on the field, the defense has yielded a mere 20 points, a pair of touchdowns with extra points and two field goals. They haven’t allowed a touchdown pass all year while leading the league in interceptions with 11.


They rank No. 1 in total defense (238.4 yards per game), passing defense (160.4 yards per game), sacks (24), first downs allowed per game (13.2), yards allowed per play (4.07), third-down percentage (12.7 percent), and crushed spirits.

On a team with Tom Brady, the defense is unquestionably the featured act of a 5-0 start. It looks like the single most dominant unit the Patriots have possessed since the record-setting 2007 offense. We know the defense is great. But is it possible for them to really be this historically, epically, impossibly dominant all season, to stand helmet and shoulder pads above the most revered defenses in NFL history like the 1985 Bears and the 2000 Ravens when it’s all said and done?

As it is with scoring on these guys, it’s hard to figure out, because the Patriots’ excellence and the offensive ineptitude of the opponents they’ve faced bleed right into each other. The Patriots defense, which is on pace to break NFL records for most sacks and fewest points allowed, has trammeled and trampled opposing offenses, but the schedule keeps serving up red meat or raw quarterbacks for them to prey upon.


Who’s responsible for the Patriots’ rushing performances?
Nora Princiotti and Ben Volin debate who's responsible for the Patriots' rushing performances. (Produced by Lucie McCormick for the Boston Globe)

This unparalleled excellence lies at the intersection of an impregnable defense and a risible schedule with primarily callow or incapable quarterbacks.

When considering this mind-boggling beginning to the season, you can’t ignore the Patriots’ weak-to-weak schedule, with three opponents who haven’t beaten anyone and the assorted Luke Falks, Josh Allens, and Colt McCoys at quarterback. That doesn’t discredit the defense, but it provides some context to their historically parsimonious play.

Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers couldn’t find the end zone against the Patriots in the regular-season opener.
Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers couldn’t find the end zone against the Patriots in the regular-season opener.Kathryn Riley/Getty Images/Getty Images

Other than the season opener, when they limited Ben Roethlisberger to 3 points, they haven’t rung up these numbers against brand-name passers. Opposing quarterbacks have an absurdly low passer rating of 44 against New England.

It would be nice to see them test their mettle against a more established level of QB competition on a regular basis. No such luck Thursday as the Giants come to Foxborough with rookie Daniel Jones and without a prayer of beating the Patriots.

Jones, who has usurped Patriots slayer Eli Manning, is a promising young passer. He’s no stiff, winning two of his first three starts. But he’s still a rookie quarterback who will find deciphering some of the defenses the Patriots throw at him like trying to read the Cyrillic alphabet for the first time.

RELATED: Forget the stats, Daniel Jones can play

Plus, he’ll be piloting an offense that is setting up to be stripped of options by injury. Early indications are that the Giants could be without top tight end Evan Engram, top wideout Sterling Shepard, replacement running back Wayne Gallman, and 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Saquon Barkley, who is nursing a high ankle sprain.


Oh, and the Patriots have won only 18 straight starts against first- and second-year quarterbacks, an NFL record. If Young Mr. Jones throws the first touchdown pass against the Patriots this season, there should be a parade thrown for him in the Canyon of Heroes.

Meanwhile, the Patriots continue to expose the wide chasm between the caliber of their defense and the caliber of the offensive competition they’re facing.

Up next after Jones, on Monday, Oct. 21, is second-year Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, who is working his way back from mononucleosis to try to salvage a winless season. If feels almost unfair to give the Patriots extra time to prepare for a developing QB felled by the kissing disease.

After a bout of mono, Sam Darnold of the Jets has been cleared to return.
After a bout of mono, Sam Darnold of the Jets has been cleared to return.Seth Weni/AP/Associated Press

After that, cocksure Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield will try his hand against the Patriots. Expect more braying from the brash second-year signal-caller, the NFL poster child for inflated self-worth. Mayfield is currently completing 55.9 percent of his passes and leads the league in interceptions (eight) and snotty behavior.

Maybe things get real for the Patriots with a Nov. 3 trip to Baltimore to take on Lamar Jackson, who has been a revelation with his dual-threat dynamism. Mobile quarterbacks have been a bane for the Patriots.


But this year’s defense, with prodigal linebacker Jamie Collins back in the fold and angling for Defensive Player of the Year honors, looks less susceptible there. Plus, Average Joe Flacco’s heir apparent is in his first full year as the starter in Baltimore.

There’s a chance this Patriots defense could not be challenged by a proven Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback until a four-game stretch that starts Nov. 17 in Philadelphia. In successive weeks, the Patriots will face Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, Cowboys contract-driven QB Dak Prescott, Houston’s Deshaun Watson, who last Sunday became the first player in league history to pass for 400 yards and five touchdowns with five or fewer incompletions, and the ultimate test: league MVP Patrick Mahomes and the high-octane Chiefs. The Patriots shut out Mahomes in the first half of last season’s AFC title game and then watched him pour 31 points on the board in the second half.

Could Patrick Mahomes provide the first real test for the New England defense?
Could Patrick Mahomes provide the first real test for the New England defense?Reed Hoffman/AP/FR48783 via AP

Those four formidable quarterbacks are probably all that stands between the Patriots and defensive immortality. In the meantime, they should keep beating teams and forcing bleating from overmatched offenses.

Right now, the Patriots are the Ivan Drago of NFL defense, but what happens when they face someone capable of metaphorically punching them in the mouth and drawing blood?

The best testimonial for the defense’s eminence regardless of name recognition and level of competition probably comes from Brady, who faces them in practice. The G.O.A.T has gone on record saying this is the best Patriots defense he’s seen during his time in Foxborough.


“They got a lot of great players,” said Brady following Sunday’s win in Washington. “Great players on the field, whether they’re offense or defense, are going to be helpful to us scoring points.

“So, we, obviously, have a great strength in our defense. They turn the ball over. They just make it so hard to complete every pass, and we realized that in training camp. It’s just amazing to watch those guys play right now.”

Yes, it is. But stretches of uncommon dominance like this are traditionally hard to sustain for an entire 16-game season.

We won’t know just how amazing and memorable this defense really is until the calendar changes and the capability of the opposing offenses does as well.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.