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Versatility, fundamentals forge Patriots' formidable 'D'

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Steelers tight end Jesse James is tackled short of a touchdown by Patriots safety Patrick Chung, left, and defensive back Duron Harmon.

Houston – Heading into Super Bowl LI, you can’t help but be impressed by the Atlanta Falcons' offense, led by quarterback Matt Ryan, the league’s presumptive MVP.

The Falcons led the NFL in scoring this year, averaging 33.8 points per game. And they’ve been particularly dominant down the stretch, topping 30 points in seven of their final eight games and rolling up more than 40 three times.

In the NFC championship, the Falcons scored at will against the Packers, putting points on the board seven of their first eight possessions, including four straight touchdowns in the 44-21 thumping.

But good luck repeating that feat against the New England Patriots, the league’s top scoring defense.

“It's the best defense that we've seen in the NFL this year,” Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said last week. “The numbers show it. And watch the film and you see exactly why their numbers are the way they are. They are extremely tough to score against. That's why their No. 1 in the NFL. I believe only one game this year someone scored 30 points."

If you look at New England’s depth chart you won’t be overwhelmed by star power. Sure, there are quality players, led by Pro Bowlers Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty, but there isn’t a transcendent talent like Denver’s Von Miller, Oakland’s Khalil Mack or Houston’s J.J. Watt.

What stands out is the versatility of the team’s personnel. Every coach talks about wanting players capable of doing multiple things, but the Patriots, under coordinator Matt Patricia, have a knack for finding the right way to mix and match their moving parts into a formidable force.

“They have very good players all around — players that are interchangeable that can be pass-rushers, that can be linebackers, that can be corners, that can be safeties,” Shanahan said. “And they have an extremely good scheme.”

What’s impressive is the Patriots don’t do it with flash, but with strong fundamentals.  They rank in the middle of the pack in sacks and turnovers. After boldly trading the team’s best pass rusher, Chandler Jones, to the Cardinals this offseason, Trey Flowers led the Patriots with seven sacks. Jabaal Sheard was the only other player with at least five.

The defense’s success starts with stopping the run. Even ignoring the 88.6 yards per game allowed, which can be influenced by a potent offensive attack, the Patriots were one of 11 teams to hold opponents under four yards per carry.

And they don’t surrender big plays. New England led the league, only giving up three runs of 20 or more yards. Against the pass, they were second to Denver in 40-plus yard pass plays allowed.

In the Patriots’ two playoff victories, they’ve given up two explosive plays, a pair of 30-yard passes against the Steelers. The Texans longest play, not aided by a penalty, was a 19-yard reception.

Speaking of penalties, discipline has also played a role. No defense was penalized less than the 29 infractions committed by New England.

The Patriots also thrive on third down and in the red zone, ranking in the top 10 in both categories. And as indicated by the league-low in yards after the catch allowed, they're an exceptional tackling team.

All totaled, no defense allows a lower percentage drives to end in points.

And while the Falcons seem capable of scoring 30 points at will, few have been able to do it against the Patriots. Only the Seattle Seahawks did it this year, while three opponents have managed to score more than the Falcons’ average output in 2016 during the five years Patricia has been coordinator.

In 2016, New England held 13 opponents to 20 or fewer points.

To think, the consensus in November is the Patriots defense was a subpar unit. No one, certainly not the Falcons, would say that now.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @justin_rogers