The New England Patriots have one of the best defenses in the NFL, if not the premier outfit in the league. It could ultimately prove one of the best defenses Bill Belichick has ever assembled.

Keeping both Pittsburgh and Miami from scoring a touchdown has the unit off to a great start. Of course, there are more challenges to come.

The Dolphins aren’t in the same league as the offenses the Patriots will see in weeks 8 trough 14 – Browns, Ravens, Eagles, Texans and Chiefs.

Bill Belichick says of linebacker Jamie Collins: “He’s brought a lot to us defensively in a lot of different areas, from first down to third down, to playing on the punt team.” Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

But that shouldn’t diminish how good the unit has played early on. With Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick apparently calling the plays, the group has picked up where it left off in the Super Bowl, when it shut down the high-powered Rams offense.

Only, the 2019 version is improved. So what’s changed? Along with bringing back the aggressive attitude that was injected late in the year, the unit has a few new parts that have made a difference.

JAMIE COLLINS: The Patriots were hoping Collins would make the most of his second stint with the team, much like Patrick Chung, and the linebacker hasn’t disappointed. He’s been immense, making plays all over the field. On the Dolphins’ second play from scrimmage, Collins dropped Jakeem Grant in the backfield for a 4-yard loss. It was an immediate tone-setter, and the second straight game where he shot in like a laser and flattened a ball- carrier for a loss. He also had a pair of interceptions, drew a couple penalties and had a half sack. So he’s been impacting games in a number of ways.

Adding a legitimate playmaker to the defense, and someone with his skill set, has been huge. Both Belichick and outside linebackers coach DeMarcus Covington praised Collins.

“He’s brought a lot to us defensively in a lot of different areas, from first down to third down, to playing on the punt team, he’s added a lot to us,” said Belichick.

Added Covington: “We’re glad to have Jamie back. He’s a special player. He’s a smart player who really just has a feel for getting to the ball … he’s been awesome.”

CHASE WINOVICH: University of Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown spoke of how well Winovich would fit with the Patriots shortly after the Wolverines defensive end was selected in the third round of the draft.

“He’s one of those guys who loves the game, plays the game the right way all the time. You never have to worry about his effort,” said Brown. “He’s going to give you everything he’s got.”

Brown was right. Thus far, Winovich has been a perfect fit. He’s added a presence as a pass rusher. He’s been an annoyance to quarterbacks, constantly providing pressure. Against the Dolphins, he finally notched his first NFL sack.

Winovich had a very good preseason, but expectations had to tempered a bit, given he usually wasn’t playing against starters. Bottom line, he’s still wreaking havoc when he typically comes in on passing downs. His reputation for having a nonstop motor is accurate. He just keeps going until he makes some kind of impact.

MICHAEL BENNETT: The Patriots lost defensive end Trey Flowers in free agency. To help make up for his loss, they acquired Bennett from the Eagles.

The 33-year-old defensive end, who also has the versatility to play inside, played more than 50 percent of the snaps against the Steelers and played well up front alongside Lawrence Guy. The three-time Pro Bowler, who had nine sacks last year, wasn’t used quite as much against the Dolphins, coming on primarily as a sub rusher. Even with fewer snaps, he still pushed the pocket and managed a sack.

Veteran defensive end Michael Bennett, in his first year with the Patriots, is a three-time Pro Bowler with the versatility to play inside. Elise Amendola/Associated Press

“I haven’t paid attention to the hype, I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to be out with those guys in the real games,” Bennett said recently. “I’ve never played in the AFC before, so it’s going to be real interesting.”

JA’WHAUN BENTLEY: The second-year linebacker out of Purdue looked like he was going to be an impact player his rookie year, but tore his biceps in the third game and missed the remainder of the season. Now healthy, he’s been solid when in the lineup, with five tackles in two games. There’s are many reasons why the Patriots have only allowed three drives inside their 40-yard line after two games. Bentley and the performance of the linebackers has been one of them.

“Everybody has a role on the team and we’re looking to play it well,” Bentley said.

Basically, Bentley’s presence in the middle of the field allows Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy a little more freedom to join the rush off the edge, or drop back in coverage.

“Having guys like him around only helps,” Hightower said. “Not just our linebacker room but the defense as well.”

DANNY SHELTON: He’s not new, but he’s definitely not the same player as last year. After shedding weight during the offseason, the slimmed down version of Shelton has been so much more effective up front. He might be the most improved player on the team. While Shelton emerged in the Super Bowl against the Rams, he’s even more of a presence now. He was good against the Steelers and dominant against the Dolphins. He owned their offensive line. He blew by Dolphins center Daniel Kilgore to sack Ryan Fitzpatrick, one of the seven sacks by the Patriots.

Earlier this week, Belichick noted how much Shelton has improved.

“He’s been great all year. First guy in, last guy out type of attitude. He’s very attentive and has worked very hard on the things that we’ve asked him to do, and some of those are a little different than they were last year … but he’s really improved now, I’d say in every area,” Belichick said. “Run defense, pass defense, read blocking schemes, and just overall awareness and communication on the defensive front, which there’s a decent amount of. So I like having him on the team, and I think his role and his understanding, and the confidence he has in the defense and the confidence the defense has in him, it’s definitely taken a couple steps forward.”

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