Surprisingly it's been the oft-questioned Patriots defense and not its more-hyped, star-studded offensive counterpart that's played the most consistent football through three weeks of regular-season action.
While Tom Brady's offense has sputtered a bit in the team's 2-1 start, including a disappointing 1-for-5 effort in the red zone in Sunday's 26-10 win over the Falcons in Foxborough, the defense has been steady if unspectacular to date.
New England's defenders have allowed 17, 16 and 10 points against the Bills, Jets and Falcons - the other of the team's 50 points allowed in three games coming on a Brady pick-six interception to Buffalo defensive end Aaron Schobel. Though the first two weeks came against questionable offenses, the most recent display came against Matt Ryan and the previously high-flying foes from Atlanta as the Patriots shut out the Falcons in the second half on the way to victory.
As surprising as the retooled defense's three-week production has been, even more surprising may have been the defensive star against Atlanta - safety Brandon McGowan.
The former Bear, who started 13 games over four years in Chicago but missed most of 2006 and 2008 to injuries, has taken quickly to the New England scheme. Against Atlanta he was a big part of the team's double-coverage of future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez that held the pass-catching machine to just one reception for 16 yards. McGowan also forced a Michael Turner fumble that was recovered by fellow safety James Sanders.
"I think the more he's played, the better he's played," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of McGowan, who's started each of the last two weeks. "And the more impact he's had on the game, the more you want him in there. And he's done a good job. I thought the hit that he had (on Sunday), the fumble that he caused, was really a pretty good play. I'm not sure there are a lot of players that would have made that play, (who) would have been able to get the hit that he did with the impact that he had on it. He knocked that ball loose and that was a huge play in the game. He's in on a lot of tackles.
"He stepped up, met that challenge and gave Tony a very competitive afternoon. I would say it's a combination of some of the situations we've been in, and feeling like he would be able to do the things we needed in that particular situation, and part of it is that he's done a good job, and you kind of want to give him a little bit more."
Belichick has also been impressed with how quickly the 5-11, 210-pound former University of Maine star has picked up the complex defensive schemes in New England. But the coach also left some room for growth for McGowan and his potential impact on the defense.
"There's still a ways to go and there are some things we do that even came up (against Atlanta), we haven't done a lot. Maybe it's been the first time, maybe we did it one other week in training camp vs. a player that's been here, like say (Brandon) Meriweather, to pick a name. There's probably not too many things that we're doing with Brandon (Meriweather) that he hasn't done several other times before in other games, other seasons, or whatever. ... There isn't that type of background with Brandon McGowan at this point. But he's done a good job with the things that we've asked him to do and he's also shown up in the kicking game as well. He's had an impact on special teams. He's done a good job for us."
He's just one of a few, unheralded reasons whey the Patriots defense has quieted some critics in the early going in 2009. And part of the reason why the team is off to the winning start despite some early struggles from the supposedly unstoppable Brady, Randy Moss & Co. offense.
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