To get another perspective on this Patriots defense and all of its “glory,” we swapped questions with Scott Frizzell at Patriots Extra. Like Rich Hill at Pats Pulpit before him, he does not appear bullish on that side of the ball.
Dave Choate: So...what exactly has happened to the Patriots defense since last year? It looks better on paper, but the results have been terrible.
Scott Frizzell: That it has. Stephon Gilmore has been brought in on a huge, new contract, and I think he’s adjusting. With that said, it looks like he will probably miss a second straight week, so you won’t even have him to deal with. Also in the secondary, Malcolm Butler seems to be, how to say, sulking after how the offseason played out with him almost being shipped to New Orleans and not getting the contract that he wanted. If he wants the contract moving forward, he needs to start playing like he has the past couple of years.
I think those are the main issues. There have been more, of course. Eric Rowe is also missing a lot of plays in the secondary, but again, he’s one that might not play this coming weekend.
Dave Choate: I saw a Pro Football Focus article earlier this week that suggested that the Patriots have chiefly been victims of big plays, and the underlying metrics suggest at least an average defense. Would you agree with that, and whether or not you do, what are the strengths of the defense right now?
Scott Frizzell: There’s truth to that statement. The Patriots have given up a lot of big plays. There are a lot of medium passes, not deep downfield, where players are just missing assignments or blowing coverage. Sometimes a guy is downfield and there is no one within ten yards of them. I do not believe they are currently an average defense, but I do believe they have the ability to evolve into one.
There have been seasons in the past where the Patriots defense has started slow in the first month or two, only to improve greatly by the end of the year.
Dave Choate: Especially missing two players in the secondary, what is the plan to stop Julio Jones, because fervent prayer?
Scott Frizzell: That sounds about right.
The plan to stop Julio Jones is Steve Sarkisian not throwing the ball to him. Ideally, we would put Stephon Gilmore on him, not because he has been great so far, but because he is large for a defensive back and could at least somewhat match up with Julio’s size. Gilmore, of course, isn’t going to play. Without him, I think you have to throw the Butler on him, despite the huge size disadvantage, and hope that Butler finds some motivation inside him to try and shut down an elite receiver.
Dave Choate: We’ve talked a lot about the passing game, but how do the Patriots stack up against the run, and who is a bigger threat to the defense, Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman?
Scott Frizzell: I think both running backs can have their success against the Patriots. They are arguably the best 1-2 punch in the NFL at the position. Ideally, the Falcons should establish the run early and use it all game. Not saying they shouldn’t pass—they should all game, and it should work—but they should not get away from the run the way they have in past weeks.
Freeman is the bigger threat against this defense. He’s easily a top five running back in the NFL, and he shredded the Patriots defense in the Super Bowl, showing he can have success against them.
Dave Choate: Realistically speaking, can the Patriots hold the Falcons in check enough to win this football game. And how many points do you think the Falcons will score?
Scott Frizzell: I believe they can hold them in check enough to win, moreso because I believe the Patriots offense has the ability to score enough to keep them in it. It depends on your definition of holding in check, though.
I don’t see any way they can hold the Falcons below 20 points. My hope would be that they can hold them below 30 points, though. With the way the Falcons seem to be slowly adapating to the new system, there is a chance the Patriots can hold them in the mid-20s, which may be more the Falcons holding themselves to that scoring level.
Dave Choate: And finally, who wins this game?
Scott Frizzell: I’ve still gotta go with the Patriots. Being a primetime game, at home, I think the crowd is going to be behind them strongly, you’ve got the added benefit of being on national television trying to defend your Super Bowl championship, in a way, on your home turf. I think the Patriots pull it out 31-24.
I do think it stays a close game, within 7-10 points the whole way through, unlike the very wild Super Bowl we saw in February. I think this game remains winnable for either team the whole way through, even if the Patriots ultimately win.