One year ago, the Patriots were still reeling from a Super Bowl loss that came from an utterly astounding lack of defense. Now, they are celebrating a Super Bowl victory that came almost solely from an absolutely brilliant defensive performance. What a difference a year can make.
The problem with the performance of the Patriots defense in Super Bowl 52 wasn't that they were not talented. The problem was that they were the seventh best scoring defense in the league and had a number of highly talented players, yet could not stop Nick Foles and the Eagles even once. Yes, Malcolm Butler not playing certainly played a factor, but there were plenty of other good and even great players on New England's defense that could have made a play.
A year later, with a group that may have actually looked worse on paper, New England managed to shut down a team that had the second-best offense this season, and the 11th best all time.
Between having an aggressive and creative game plan, and players giving maximum effort, New England's defensive performance should not be overlooked.
Some of the production came from players who were overlooked or unwanted:
- the Patriots swapped a sixth-round pick for a seventh-round pick to acquire Jason McCourty. He finished third on the team in the Super Bowl with five combined tackles, and also had two passes defended. McCourty received the highest pass coverage grade of any player in Super Bowl 53 by Pro Football Focus. He also had arguably the most important play of the game. Brandin Cooks became open in the end zone after a break down in coverage by the Patriots secondary. McCourty did not just watch the play happen. Instead, he hustled over and knocked the ball from Cooks' hands as he was going to catch it, preventing the Rams from tying the ball game. All of that for sliding down just a few picks.
- New England swapped a 2019 third round pick for a 2018 fifth round pick to acquire defensive tackle Danny Shelton from the Browns. Shelton did not have the most productive year, spending a number of games as a healthy scratch. However, he showed up on the grandest stage of them all. He had two tackles, including one for a loss. Most importantly, he received PFF's highest run defense grade.
- Jonathan Jones has been New England's third or fourth cornerback all year long. After beating out Cyrus Jones, and Duke Dawson ending up on injured reserve, J. Jones had the chance to prove himself. He finished with career highs in nearly all defensive categories. He also came up big in the Super Bowl. Jones finished with a team-high eight combined tackles, including a sack.
- Second-year player Deatrich Wise Jr. also got in the action. After missing the previous two playoff games, it was unclear whether Wise would play in the Super Bowl. He ended up with five combined tackles, including one quarterback hit. He may not have been the focal point on defense, but he made his presence known.
Some of the Patriots defensive success came from names we are all familiar with:
- Kyle Van Noy capped off the best season of his career with a solid Super Bowl performance. Van Noy finished with four tackles, including a sack and three tackles for loss. He had a phenomenal performance as a run stopper and a pass rusher. His speed was too much for the Rams offensive line, and his intelligence shown through as he was not distracted by Los Angeles' motion plays. He is coming close to Mike Vrabel/Rob Ninkovich status.
- After a disappointing regular season, Dont'a Hightower still had more to prove. He did it on Sunday, putting in one of the best performances of the night. New England's top linebacker/edge rusher finished with two sacks on the night. He exhibited consistent pressure on Goff all night which helped his teammates in coverage.
- Before leaving the game with an injury, Patrick Chung was in the running for MVP as well. He had four tackles and one pass defended and had been stout in the run game. Chung had also been laying hit sticks on Rams players all night, which helped throw them off their game.
- Duron Harmon also helped make two of the plays of the game. The Patriots safety played very little against Kansas City and needed a rebound game. He had it in Super Bowl 53 after playing solid coverage that led to the most important plays of his career. With just over four minutes left to go, Jared Goff tried throwing an endzone fade to Cooks who was covered by Stephon Gilmore with help over the top by a safety. The ball got to Cooks on his way to the end zone, but Harmon was there to lay a solid hit and prevent the reception. On the very next play, Harmon nearly got to Goff on an all-out blitz. His pass rush forced Goff to panic, allowing Gilmore the easy interception. Without these plays, the Patriots may not have won Super Bowl 53.
Julian Edelman performed very well, and certainly had an impact on the outcome of the game. But New England's defense held the vaunted Rams offense to just three points.
Let me say that again. The Patriots defense only allowed three points to a group that averaged just under 33 points per game. They played their hearts out, and nearly everyone on this list deserved at least some consideration for MVP.