FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — We’ve been told by coaches and television commentators through the years that defense wins championships.
Michael Hoomanawanui, a tight end for the New England Patriots, wants to clarify that statement.
“Teams win championships,: said Hoomanawanui. “It’s all three phases and coaches place a big emphasis on that here.”
True. But if this year’s version of the Patriots hopes to win another Super Bowl title, its defense is going to have to play big.
With Tom Brady orchestrating a fastbreak offense to the receiving likes of Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Lloyd, the Patriots have one of the most formidable offenses in the NFL. New England led the NFL in total offense (427.9 yards per game) and scoring (34.8 points).
So scoring is obviously not a problem for New England.
But its defense has been suspect for much of the season, though it has improved greatly in a couple of areas over the second half. The Patriots cut more than a point off their scoring defense in the final eight games and slashed 20 yards off their pass defense.
That trend is going to have to continue when New England opens its playoff run next Sunday at 4:30 p.m.
When you look back at New England’s Super Bowl history, it is clear that defense played a big role. The 2001 team that won the Patriots first Super Bowl championship had the weakest defense of the franchise’s three Vince Lombardi Trophy winners, allowing the most points (17 per game) and yards (334.5) of the three.
The 2003 championship team gave up only 14.9 points and 291.6 yards. In 2004, it was 16.3 points and 310.8 yards.
All of those numbers are remarkably better than this year’s team, which gave up an average of 20.7 points per game and 373.3 yards.
Still, there is hope. The secondary, scorched for big plays throughout the first half of the season, has solidified with the addition of cornerback Aqib Talib, acquired in a Nov. 1 trade from Tampa Bay. While he has struggled at times with the Patriots complex defensive system, Talib has made a difference.
Chris Price of WEEI.com broke down the Patriots pass defense before and after Talib arrived and noted that, in the nine games New England played without Talib, they gave up 49 passes of 20-or-more yards, 15 of 30-or-more.
In the seven games since, the Patriots have give up only 25 passes of 20-or-more yards, only seven of 30-plus.
And that includes the Jacksonville game, when Talib was in on only eight plays because of a hip injury (and Chad Henne threw for 350 yards) and Miami, where he didn’t play at all.
His arrival allowed Bill Belichick to move cornerback Devin McCourty to safety (where he looks much more comfortable and aggressive) and cornerback Kyle Arrington on to the slot receiver, where he has been very effective.
Talib, who said last Wednesday that he’s feeling better, wouldn’t take credit for the improvement.
“It’s about corrections,” he said. “If (giving up big plays) was hurting you earlier, you’re going to put a lot of emphasis on it so that it doesn’t hurt you in the future. We’ve definitely put a lot of emphasis on that and we’re trying to get better.”
Belichick said last Wednesday that it really is simply a matter of everyone getting better.
“I’d like to think we improved,” he said “We certainly worked on it. We made a couple changes after the Seattle game (a 24-23 loss on Oct. 14) but not that we didn’t work on it before but we kept working on it more. I think overall the results were better.”
It didn’t always look that way, but the results were better. McCourty, who finished with a team-high five interceptions, said it was really a matter of coming together.
“It was something we knew we had to keep working on,” he said. “We would have a game where we’d play well and then we’d have a game where we didn’t. We understood it was a long season and we had to keep working at it.
“And now we’re at the point where it’s all about consistency. We know we can do it, it’s just a matter of going out there and doing it.”
Talib, who will be making his first postseason appearance, said the defense might have gotten a bad rap.
“In this secondary, you’re going to get a lot of balls thrown on you,” he said. “Tom and those guys are scoring about 50 points a game so teams are always trying to come back. As a secondary, you’re going to get a lot of balls thrown at you. That’s not an excuse or anything.”
Hoomanawanui could see just how hard everyone on defense was working.
“I think maybe it goes back to having some new faces back there and working each and every day about getting that camaraderie down,” he said. “You could see it getting better every.”
Belichick hesitates to single out any one unit in the defense for its improvement.
“Defense is team defense,” he said. “Part of it is coaching and scheme and putting the players in the best chance they have to be successful. It’s pass defense, it’s pass rush, it’s run defense to create longer yardage situations, it’s pressure coverage, it’s a little bit of everything.
“I think when you look at all the plays in whatever situation you want to look at it, whether it’s defending long passes, red area, third down, fringe plays, whatever they happen to be, that you’ll find that there are a lot of different… it’s not one thing, it’s not all one guy or one play or one call or one anything. It’s a combination of a lot of things. I would say quite a few of them are better than what they were so that’s good.”
And now they have to get even better.
As rookie defensive end Chandler Jones told a group of reporters last week, “This time of season, if you’re still playing, then you’re a pretty good team.”
And that’s why there’s no rest this week, even though the team has a playoff bye.
“We’ve got to keep moving forward,” said Jones. “There’s very little time to rest. You’ve got to continue to get stronger and tougher as a team and sharpen everything up.
“You’ve got to take it as if it’s the last game of season. Because it could be.”