While their 5-3 record indicates the Patriots have some holes, this team could very well be 8-0 if not for a few fourth-quarter lapses.
As the offense continues to put up huge numbers, the defense has had its moments of brilliance and embarrassment.
After dedicating six draft choices to the defense, the results have been mixed.
First-rounders Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower have been as advertised, with both players demonstrating the physical skills and motor necessary to being future Pro Bowlers.
Tavon Wilson, a surprise second-round choice, has displayed a knack for making plays (three interceptions), but has also given up his share of big plays.
Although the pass defense continues to plague this team, the run defense has been sensational due to the emergence of Brandon Spikes and the consistency of former first-rounder Jerod Mayo.
Through eight games, the Patriots have the league’s stingiest run defense, surrendering a league-low 3.5 yards per carry.
There are certain areas of improvement—particularly in rushing the passer and defending the deep half of the field—but it’s hard to be overly critical of a defense that’s allowed 21.3 points per game, which is 12th in the league.
Let’s take a look at individual player grades for the defensive starters and the top backups.
Chandler Jones: A Has been incredible as both a run and pass defender. Leads the team with six sacks and looks destined for stardom.
Rob Ninkovich: A Early on it looked like Ninkovich was on the fast track to the bench, but his play over the past four weeks has been sensational. A clutch playmaker, Ninko has four sacks, four forced fumbles and two recoveries.
Vince Wilfork: B+ Big Vince gets a ton of credit for his ability to anchor against the run, but he hasn’t done much on third down.
Kyle Love: B Isn’t making as many big plays as last year, but he’s a steady presence and a tough guy to block in the run game.
Jermaine Cunningham: B- Finally making an impact after a lost sophomore season. Has flashed as an interior rusher in pass-rush situations.
Trevor Scott: C- Was brought on to be a situational pass-rusher but has yet to post a sack in limited snaps.
Ron Brace: C Looked good in the preseason and camp. Hasn’t done much of anything in regular-season action.
Brandon Spikes: A- Terrific run defender who’s truly coming into his own. Not the best cover linebacker, but a ferocious hitter and blitzer.
Jerod Mayo: A- Settling in nicely as a 4-3 outside linebacker where he can make use of his instincts and speed. Among league leaders in tackles (79) and finally making more plays on the ball (one sack, two passes defended, one interception, three forced fumbles, one recovery).
Dont’a Hightower: B+ Flashes glimpses of greatness mixed in with some lapses in awareness. Should only get better with experience.
Devin McCourty: B Has made more plays on the ball, yet still gets caught in bad position at times. Essentially playing at a level in between his rookie campaign and last year. Looks like he will be playing safety going forward.
Kyle Arrington: C Exposed too often in coverage and has been unable to stay on the field.
Sterling Moore: D No longer the playmaker we saw late last season. Placed on waivers by the team on Thursday.
Alfonzo Dennard: B- Thrust into the lineup due to injuries and poor performance by other players, Dennard has demonstrated some promising ball skills.
Ras-I Dowling: F Bad performance on the field only overshadowed by his fragility. Placed on IR for the second straight season. Appears to have wrapped up the bust label.
Marquice Cole: B- Core special teamer who’s shown some ability to cover guys out of the slot.
Pat Chung: C- One of my perennially overrated players. Never can stay on the field and doesn’t make plays when he does.
Steve Gregory: C Recorded an interception early in the year, but injuries and declining play show why San Diego didn’t bring him back.
Tavon Wilson: B- Shows a pair of sticky hands with three interceptions, however, he has a lot of work to do in coverage and doesn’t have the best field awareness/instincts.
Nate Ebner: B- Good special teams player who has seen more reps on defense lately.