PITTSBURGH – “This game isn’t about numbers,” said Rob Ninkovich. “Everyone thinks about sacks and all these things as huge markers for success but there are a lot of teams with a lot of sacks that aren’t winning. I’ll take the wins over the sacks any day.”
It was another win on Sunday for the Patriots – 27-16 over the Steelers in Pittsburgh. There were no sacks. There was no chaos, no befuddled young backup quarterback flushed and addled by a complex defense. In fact, Landry Jones looked real comfortable back there in throwing for 281 yards and a touchdown.
Like Carson Palmer lighting it up late or Ryan Tannehill throwing for 387 or Tyrod Taylor converting third downs with impunity, Jones on Sunday continued a trend of quarterbacks looking pretty good against a very talented defense that -- nonetheless -- walked away with a comfortable win.
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The Patriots have allowed 107 points – the fewest in the AFC and fewer than all but three teams in the NFC and all three of those have played one fewer game.
But it’s hard to escape the feeling that they’re playing it too close to the bone.
Bill Belichick once said quite plainly, “Stats are for losers.” Not all stats, though. We hear it often – three stats matter more than the rest: Red-zone defense, turnovers and third-down efficiency.
And if you look at those numbers for the Patriots defense, they were all fairly gaudy.
The Steelers were in the Patriots’ red zone four times. They came away with 10 points. They were inside the Patriots’ 40 six times and finished with 16.
The Patriots yield yards but not points. And that’s by design, said Ninkovich.
“In an offense like that with a bunch of very explosive players, one slant can turn into a touchdown so you have to be really careful in your coverages,” said the veteran defensive end. "There’s not just one go-to guy. They got a running back that can catch it out of the backfield and make plays (Le’Veon Bell). [Antonio Brown] can catch it anywhere on the field and make plays. You just have to make sure with a guy like [Landry Jones] to have him make the throws. It’s hard in this league to be perfect. So to have him sit back there and try to make all the throws was what we chose and the secondary did a great job.”
The Patriots rushed three or four most of the game. When they ran a corner blitz with Malcolm Butler, he didn’t get home and Jones hit Bell for a decent gain.
“You can’t just pin your ears back because that’s when you get in trouble,” Ninkovich explained. “And then next week, there’s a guy (Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor) who can move in the pocket, so that’s another whole type of defense you run with a mobile quarterback.”
Last season’s game at Buffalo is a good example of why Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia don’t like the feeding frenzy approach to defense. New England had the game in hand, 37-13 entering the fourth. And then, with everyone wanting to get in on the rush, Buffalo scored 19 in the fourth quarter with Taylor breaking contain and making plays with his feet.
After that game (and really, for most of Belichick’s tenure here), the Patriots were more interested in seeing what a quarterback could do in terms of stringing plays together.
The Patriots like their chances in that realm.
“It’s 1-on-1 matchups, guys making plays on third down and in the red area,” said safety Devin McCourty. “Guys are gonna make great catches every once in a while. Guys are gonna make great throws. You gotta live with that. They’re in the NFL, too. But if we’re consistent with how we’re playing, we’ll make enough plays to do well.”
They certainly do that. As unpleasant as it seemed when the Steelers made it 14-13 (which came after they'd skewered themselves in the first half with a missed field goal, an end-zone pick and a hold that wiped out a touchdown), the Patriots walked out with another double-digit win.
It felt like the butt-kicking could have been more thorough, though.
How does McCourty think Bill Belichick, film critic, will view the performance?
“Honestly, you never know,” McCourty said. “There’s times we leave the field feeling like we played terrible and [Belichick says], ‘You fix a couple things and we’ll be all right.’ And there’s times where you feel like you played well and we go in there and get ripped.
“The things Bill focuses on and what he expects out of our defense is what he (keys on) every week,” McCourty stressed. “No matter what the media says, no matter what the stats say. If we don’t give up any points but there’s three third downs where we give up the wrong leverage, that’s a problem. Monday afternoon [after film breakdown] is always a mystery.”
The results for the Patriots haven’t been (with the exception of the opener) cliffhangers. But the feeling persists that one of these weeks, this defense that plays a style daring the opposing quarterback to not shoot himself in the foot will go up against a quarterback that who actually doesn’t.