ATLANTA — If Tom Brady is the leading man for these Patriots, the defense might be viewed as a bunch of extras.
The New England defense is a group that no one is talking about entering Super Bowl LIII. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and the Patriots offense are getting plenty of attention. The Rams offense, with Jared Goff and Todd Gurley, is generating plenty of buzz. People think Rams defensive stud Aaron Donald can wreck this game. And don’t forget about Ndamukong Suh.
The Patriots defense? Who?
“That’s fine,” Patriots safety Patrick Chung said Thursday when it was pointed out that no one is talking about the defense.
When Brady is the star of the show, you get used to being the supporting cast, and that is exactly what the Patriots defense has been this year. But the Patriots would not be in the Super Bowl if not for some outstanding defensive play, particularly lately.
In the playoffs, the New England defense has shown up. In the divisional round, it stopped Philip Rivers and the Chargers, holding them to seven first-half points. In the AFC title game a week later, the Patriots shut out the Chiefs in the first half. They gave up 31 points in the second half, but it still felt like they got the better of the high-flying Chiefs offense. They held Tyreek Hill to one catch and came up with some huge stops.
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When the Patriots defense does get credit, it often goes to Bill Belichick and his game plans more than the players executing the game plans.
“Tom gets a lot of credit and it’s deserved,” said former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who is now an ESPN analyst.
“I think you forget about that offensive line in front of him at times. The defense, I guess it’s just me, it’s obvious. It’s too hard to overlook the job they did, especially going into Kansas City. People will focus on the schemes and how they took away Tyreek Hill or in the first matchup how they schemed to take away Travis Kelce.
“Don’t get me wrong, these are great plans, but the players are executing them. I’ve seen these plans. I’ve played on teams where there were similar plans and those plans didn’t work. The player couldn’t get it done. … It’s a solid unit.”
The Patriots do have good players on defense, but not many household names. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore was named first-team All-Pro this season. He has given up a single catch in the playoffs. Trey Flowers has proved to be a disruptive force. He has seven sacks in his last eight games. Players like Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty are as reliable as the sun coming up each morning.
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Many Patriots players say they don’t care about the perceived lack of credit. But linebacker Kyle Van Noy said they use it as fuel.
“We all have a chip on our shoulder,” Van Noy said. “I would say a lot of the guys are used to it by now. A lot of the players have played here for a long time. You have guys that are really, really good. You have guys like Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung that have been there so long that get overlooked probably in their whole career. If you actually go back and watch what they’ve done over their career, it’s really impressive.”
Van Noy said he understands, though, why they are often viewed as Brady’s co-stars.
“Tom deserves all the credit. He’s the best to ever play,” Van Noy said.
This season, the Patriots finished seventh in points allowed. After early-season struggles, when they gave up more than 400 yards in losses to the Jaguars and Lions, the defense came together and played better. That improvement has them here on the verge of another Super Bowl title.
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“This is always the goal,” Van Noy said. “This is always the game to get to. We knew we had the talent. Not many other people think we do, for whatever reason. We pulled together. We’ve had great game plans and we’ve focused on the task that’s at hand. We’re going to do whatever we can to slow them down and get the ball back to Tom.”
Linebacker Elandon Roberts said he believes the Patriots peaked at the right time — the end of the season. It is a trademark of the Patriots.
“You’ve got to keep what you’re coached to do, keep doing your fundamentals,” Roberts said of the secret to improving as the year goes on. “It’s the small things. If you focus on the small things, everything comes together. That’s all it is.”