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Super Bowl LII: Numbers don’t tell whole story for Patriots’ defense

Late-season pickup James Harrison of the Patriots forces

Late-season pickup James Harrison of the Patriots forces fumble by Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 21, 2018. Credit: Getty Images / Kevin C. Cox

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The Patriots are in Super Bowl LII with a below-average defense, at least statistically.

They finished 29th in total defense (366.1 yards allowed per game), 30th against the pass (251.3) and 20th against the run (114.8). In the first six games, the Patriots allowed an average of 444 yards. In their first four, they were 2-2 and allowed an average of 32 points.

But changes helped immensely, including putting Kyle Van Noy in a hybrid position in which he moves from outside linebacker to end. A one-on-one session with coordinator Matt Patricia was an eye-opener for Van Noy.

“Matt’s a nerd,” Van Noy said. “He’s a great coach, a great guy, very smart, knows the game of football. Loves football and helped me see the game differently and take one play at a time. Having him in your ear can sometimes be annoying because he’s so smart. He tells you sometimes what’s going on, and it’s like, ‘Man, shut up and let me play.’ He’s been a huge instrument, and I’m glad to play for him.”

Still, it’s hard to believe that the Patriots, with no superstars on their defense, performed well enough to reach the Super Bowl. Of course, having Tom Brady leading one of the best offenses in the NFL doesn’t hurt. The Patriots led the league by scoring on 49.4 percent of their possessions, which covered up some defensive problems.

“The first four games of the season, they played like crap,” said NBC analyst Rodney Harrison, a former Patriots safety. “They made some adjustments and they ended up with one of the best defenses in the league. That should tell you something about Matt Patricia.”

In the last five games of the regular season, the Pats allowed 323.2 yards per game, but despite those improved numbers, it’s the little things that work for this group. They moved up to fifth in fewest points allowed (18.5) and fourth in red-zone defense, giving up touchdowns 43.8 percent of the time.

Better tackling probably was the key. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Patriots’ defense tied for the third-fewest broken tackles allowed (53). Van Noy said fundamentals are the secret to good tackling.

“Early on, you go through the film and stuff,” defensive end Trey Flowers said. “We understood what our mistakes were, and a lot of times it’s communication and being on the same page. Once we could communicate and got more comfortable, we were able to play more physical and attack more.”

The Eagles present a run-pass option, causing problems when Nick Foles can pull out of running plays and make a quick throw downfield. At times the Eagles go uptempo, which keeps defenses from finding favorable matchups. While the Patriots are strong tacklers, the Eagles, with their group of running backs, led the NFL with 112 broken tackles.

“I feel like they do so much more than the [run-pass option],’’ Van Noy said. “It puts stress on everybody, but at the same time the stress comes from all the other stuff they do.”

With all the weapons the Eagles have, can the Patriots’ defense hold on one more time in the biggest game of the season?

“A lot of guys figured out their role,” Flowers said. “Early on, we had a lot of moving parts, a lot of new guys in, so it was just understanding their roles. Once you play comfortable, I think you start producing at a higher level.”

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