Patriots defense looks different in early going

Staff photo by TOM KING New England defensive lineman Deatrich Wise, according to Bill Belichcik, has made big strides on the defensive line.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The usual Devin McCourty post game press conference in the Gillette Stadium team room didn’t take long Sunday, lasting just two questions.

After all, the excitement was over Rob Gronkowski and his big performance in the Patriots’ 27-20 win.

But it should’ve perhaps been longer. A year ago, McCourty & Co. were under the gun, giving up a plethora of fourth quarter big play points in an opening night loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. And the Patriots defense ended last season the same way it began, giving up 40-plus points to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII.

Sunday, things looked a little different, didn’t they?

That’s not to say the Patriots can’t get torched by a good quarterback. It’s early, and we don’t know. It helped that an extremely tentative DeShaun Watson, who threw for over 300 yards here early last season, wasn’t even close to the same player (just 176 yards passing, 40 rushing).

But as we said prior to the start of the season, the Patriots defensive line has more depth and quickness. And de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores (no title thus far) seems to be more aggressive with his approach.

“We thought it was very important to get out there and play from ahead,” McCourty said in his few words.

Playing from ahead for a defense doesn’t just mean on the scoreboard but in an aggressive, risk-taking approach. There’s a lot of push up front, and the linebacking corps has been strengthened by Purdue rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley, the only member of April’s draft class to see action on Sunday. Deatrich Wise had a 1.5 sack day. Names your not used to hearing.

“He’s adjusted his pass surh techniques and awareness and so forth over the last year,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday of Wise.

And Bentley? “This kid’s been productive at every program (Purdue, DeMatha High School) he’s been in almost as son as he’s been in the program,” Belichick said. “I mean, I don’t see it as a big shock.”

Will all this look lead to better results over the duration? There’s a long season ahead, and lot will depend on matchups.

“It’s still the first game,” Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore said. “We came out and tried to play good as a defense, trust each other and rely on the coaches to put us in the position to make plays.”

But it’s clear these Patriots, knowing they were facing a quarterback who is mobile by reputation, wanted to play fast. And fast up front. And, the more Watson appeared to not want to use that mobility (likely thanks his torn ACL recovery), the more ravenous the New England defense became.

This Sunday they won’t face a quarterback with as dynamic a reputation in Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles. Bortles managed just 176 passing yards Sunday against a Giants defense that isn’t that good. The Jaguars lost their best back, Leonard Fournette, to a hamstring injury. It’s a different dynamic.

The Patriots don’t have the same laments as a team like New Orleans, a Super Bowl contender in the eyes of many, which gave up 48 points to a Ryan Fitzpatrick-QB’d Tampa Bay team. Shameful.

Looking down the road at schedules can be destructive after Week One, but you would think over the first two months the problem offenses would come from Detroit in two weeks on the road, Kansas City (38 points Sunday with Pat Mahomes throwing for 256 yards) and, depending on his health after the Sunday Night Miracle, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

But one thing seems to be relevant: The Patriots defense looks different. And different, in this case, should also mean better than a year ago.