FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts — It took an entire regular season and some tough losses, but the Patriots defense finally likes where it is at heading into its Super Bowl matchup with the Los Angeles Rams.
It hasn’t been perfect, but after a slow start to 2018 and fighting to find an identity following the departure of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, the Patriots have found stability for a group that gave up 25 or more points five times through its first 10 games.
The Patriots rarely revisit the past, but on Wednesday linebacker Kyle Van Noy said that part of their issues early on had roots in their Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia last February.
“It was just a humbling experience,” Van Noy said. “I feel like defensively we didn’t play well, so it’s just humbling to go through that opportunity like that.”
Over the latter part of this season, the Patriots have used that disappointment as motivation.
Following its bye in Week 11, New England’s defense held all but one of its final six opponents to 17 or fewer points. The exception was a 34-33 loss at Miami, which ended with the Dolphins scoring on a wild final play.
Last season the Patriots finished fifth in the NFL, allowing 18.5 points per game. This season they were just slightly worse, allowing 20.3 points per game — seventh best in the league.
In the playoffs they’ve had some of their best moments of the season.
They held Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers to seven first-half points in the divisional round, then limited a Kansas City Chiefs offense that averaged a league-best 35.3 points during the regular season scoreless in the first half of the AFC championship game. Both times it allowed the offense to establish a cushion it would need in the second half.
“I think our team has done a really good job of putting the last week behind us and focusing on that week that’s ahead,” Van Noy said. “You learn from those mistakes whether they’re good or bad and you try to fix those and keep trying to get better and better. This team has done a really good job of it.”
Defensive line coach Brendan Daly said some of it has been as simple as guys speaking up more on the field.
“I’ve been impressed with our communication and those guys’ ability to communicate with each other, get everyone on the same page in some very critical and difficult situations and be effective,” Daly said. “We’re going to have to continue to do that.”
It’s all come together thanks in part to the leadership of de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores, who took over primary play-calling duties this season.
Initially he didn’t deviate much from the way Patricia did things. But he’s tried to simplify the scheme over the latter part of season, which has helped his players be a lot more aggressive.
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore has particularly thrived in Flores’ system. During the regular season he was second on the team with two interceptions, had a team-best 20 pass defenses and recorded his first career sack. His efforts earned the seven-year veteran his first All-Pro team selection.
“He’s done a great job,” Gilmore said of Flores. “He can be a friend, he can be a coach and get on you so he can do everything for you. He really cares for the players. He pushes everybody every week and gets the best out of his players.”
He said preparation in practice has also paid off.
“Just trusting each other on the back end and those guys getting pressure up front,” said Gilmore, who has the team’s lone interception of the playoffs. “Everything goes hand-in-hand and we’re just trying to play fast and aggressive.”
The defense has also benefited from having a starting lineup that collectively missed just five games to injury.
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower missed one game during the regular season, but his 15 starts are triple the five games he was limited to last season after he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.
He finished the regular season with 50 tackles, a sack and his first career interception.
“My time on the field hasn’t always been as much as I wanted it to be, but this year it’s meant a lot to me,” Hightower said. “I’ve been out there, I’ve been able to play. … Looking forward to keeping this thing going.”