Bend but don’t break.

That may be the best way to describe the New England Patriots’ defense over the years. They give up a lot of yardage, but not many points.

And this season’s team may have taken that axiom to the extreme.

Their defense ranked 29th of 32 NFL teams, giving up 366 yards per game. The run defense ranked 20th (114.8 yards) and the pass defense 30th (251.3 yards).

Those marks are easily among the worst of any of the seven Patriots teams that advanced to the Super Bowl in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. Only the 2011 team that lost to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl had worse defensive numbers – ranking 31st in total defense.

But as Belichick often has said, the only statistic that matters is on the scoreboard. New England gave up 18.5 points per game this season, good for fifth in the league. The NFL average was 21.7.

In their Super Bowl championship years, the Patriots have been among the NFL’s best in points allowed: 2001 (17.0, ranked sixth), 2003 (14.9, first), 2004 (16.2, second), 2014 (19.6, eighth) and 2016 (15.6, first).

This season, the Patriots have been pretty darn good since coming out of the bye week, allowing only 14.6 points per game. That’s tied with the Minnesota Vikings for the fewest points allowed over the last half of the season. It’s impressive when you consider the Patriots lost linebacker Dont’a Hightower, perhaps their best defensive player, to a torn pectoral muscle on Oct. 22. They played without their best cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, for three games. Alan Branch, the veteran run stopper, missed the final three games because of an injury.

Yes, the Patriots are still giving up a lot of yardage, but their defensive improvement over the course of the year has been remarkable.

After four games, they were giving up yards and points at a historic pace. Sitting at 2-2, the Patriots were last in total defense (456.8 yards) and next-to-last in points allowed (32.0).

The Patriots won 11 of their next 12 games by holding 10 opponents to 17 points or less. They limited the huge chunk plays they gave up in the first four games – five of the 11 longest plays against the Patriots this year occurred in the first four games – and they attacked the quarterback.

The Patriots had to undergo a big learning curve at the start of the season. There were many new faces and young players, such as third-year defensive end Trey Flowers and second-year linebacker Elandon Roberts, stepping into bigger roles. Roberts finished fourth in tackles with 67, six ahead of Flowers, who had a team-high 6.5 sacks.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, in his second year with the Patriots, was huge, ending up third on the team in tackles with 73, along with 5.5 sacks. Safety Duron Harmon took on an expanded role as the Patriots often trotted out five or six defensive backs. In six of the last seven games, the Patriots mostly started five defensive backs and just two linebackers – Noy and Roberts. The last-game addition of veteran linebacker James Harrison brings back some bite to the linebacking crew.

Gilmore had to adjust to a new secondary. Once he settled in with cornerback Malcolm Butler and safeties Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Harmon – and once nickel cornerback Eric Rowe got healthy – the secondary was solid.

And the pass rush, always a sore spot for fans who want more of it, came on. New England had only eight sacks in the first four games. The Patriots finished with 42, getting 26 in the final eight games, an average of 3.25 per game.

This was a defense that needed to learn to play together, and needed to stick together when the stats looked really bad.

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia – one of the most sought-after NFL assistants as teams look to fill head-coaching vacancies – is not one to coddle players.

McCourty recently recounted a film session after the Patriots defeated the Atlanta Falcons 23-7 in October. The players were pleased, but Patricia was not because the Falcons scored on a two-minute drill.

“We came in here and we watched that drive on how we didn’t have to give up those points,” said McCourty. “To me, that’s him. You’re not going to get him to lower his standards. He expects the best out of the first group we put on the field, the last group, in training camp, in the spring.

“You know, we got cursed out in the spring for giving up touchdowns in the seven-on-seven red area where the ball started at the 7-yard line. (Patricia) came in there and he ripped us. So I think, obviously as players, sometimes you get mad at that, but if you’re wise, (you) realize that’s what helps you become a better individual player and collectively a better defense.”

There’s still work to be done. You can be sure the Patriots used the bye week wisely as they get ready for a playoff game on Saturday night. Don’t bet against this defense making a championship stand again.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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