Super Bowl 51: Why Doubt New England Patriots Defense?

The AFC champion New England Patriots ranked first in the NFL in scoring defense, but still have doubters entering Super Bowl 51.

We are in for one of those kind of matchups when the high-flying Atlanta Falcons take on the stingy New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI at Houston. Dan Quinn’s team scored an imposing 540 points this season (tied for the eighth-most in NFL history). It was quite a turnaround from his first year as head coach, when the 8-8 Falcons managed only 339 points in 16 games.

But while the Atlanta offense has been a hot commodity and topic, it’s New England’s defense that should warrant a little more attention. The Pats ranked eighth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game. And only the Dallas Cowboys and Tennessee Titans were stingier when it came to stopping the run. Veterans Dont’a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich and Chris Long anchor the front seven.

Head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia saw this unit allow only 27 offensive touchdowns in 16 regular-season contests. The Pats surrendered an NFL-low 250 points. In 2015, this same club allowed 65 more points (315) than this current club. Including this year’s playoff sweep of the Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Patriots held 13 of their 18 opponents to 17 points or fewer.

However, there seems to be an air of skepticism regarding this defense. It was brought on by some who think that the whole game of football revolves around the quarterback. We simply know that’s not true. When dissecting New England’s season, some have pointed to the lack of effective quarterbacks the team played during the year. While some of that may be valid, keep in mind it’s how you play and not who you square off against.

The fact is that this is a much more physical defense than we saw from the Pats last season. It’s not reminiscent of the play they got from cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the championship season of 2014. But Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung have been a solid defensive backfield this year. And that’s despite a pass rush that produced 15 fewer sacks (34) than it did the previous season (49).

There’s little doubt that Falcon  quarterback Matt Ryan knows what he is in for. Atlanta is loaded at the skill positions with running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, wideouts Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy and Taylor Gabriel. Rookie tight end Austin Hooper has also made his presence felt. All told, Ryan threw 38 touchdown passes to 13 different players this year.

Yes, the Falcons are explosive indeed. They scored a combined 80 points in their two playoff wins. They come into this game with plenty of confidence despite a lack of Super Bowl experience. But anyone shortchanging what Belichick can do with his defense doesn’t know much about history.

We’ve seen this movie before. And while this group of New England defenders hasn’t gotten a lot of notoriety, all of that could change in one fell swoop by creating a problem for the NFC Champions on Sunday in Houston.

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