It's not always perfect for the New England Patriots on defense—if it was, they'd have pitched four shutouts already—but by holding off the Atlanta Falcons offense long enough to get the win, the Patriots defense took another step forward on Sunday night.
It seems every statistic has a caveat these days, but by keeping the Falcons offense grounded for three-and-a-half quarters on Sunday night, you can knock one caveat off the list: The Patriots have now faced an offense with top-flight players at the skill positions and have stepped up to the challenge.
With an early slate that featured two rookie quarterbacks and a quarterback who was benched immediately after facing the Patriots, there were plenty of reasons to have reservations about the real progress of the Patriots defense.
The game ball on defense goes to cornerback Aqib Talib, who had a strong showing all over the field covering White and Jones. He had an interception in coverage on Jones and a pass breakup against White on a last-gasp fourth-down pass into the end zone.
According to Football Outsiders' opponent-based metrics, the Patriots ranked No. 1 against their opponent's No. 1 receiver. Jones had six catches for 108 yards, so they may lose some ground in that category, but here's some perspective: The Patriots have ranked 14th or worse each year since 2006, and were dead last against No. 1 receivers as recently as 2011.
They haven't had a corner like Talib since Asante Samuel in 2007 and have been searching for a lockdown perimeter defender since then. With four interceptions on the season, Talib continues to show his value to this team on a consistent basis.
Prior to Talib's arrival and emergence, the weight of the defense had fallen on the shoulders of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork for years. So, when he went down with an ankle injury and didn't return, it seemed only natural that the defensive performance would go in the tubes with him.
Quite the contrary. The Falcons went 5-of-8 on third down in the first half but went 1-of-6 on third down in the second half. They had 41 rushing yards in the first half and just 17 in the second half.
Depending on the severity of Wilfork's injury, there may be some depth concerns at defensive tackle going forward—those concerns have lingered since the preseason—but on Sunday night, undrafted rookie defensive tackle Joe Vellano stepped into a bigger role and got his first NFL sack as a result.
This is a battle that was there for the taking up front, and rookie defensive end Michael Buchanan contributed a sack of his own. Quarterback Matt Ryan was only brought down twice, but he was under fire at times.
Of course, Wilfork will join wide receiver Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski as the notable Patriots under injury watch.
It was also disconcerting to see tight end Tony Gonzalez make hay against the Patriots defense. He was the first player to have 12 catches and 140 yards in a single game against the Patriots since Chad Johnson did it as a member of the Bengals in 2010.
They can sleep a little better knowing that they were in position to make a play on several of those passes but were helpless as Gonzalez did what's made him an historic tight end by winning those jump balls and making contested catches.
Where do the Patriots go from here?
They are not out of the dark just yet; a few more challenging opponents await.
The challenges get tougher before they get easier.
The Patriots face yet another top-notch receiver in Bengals wideout A.J. Green next week in Cincinnati; they then host the prolific New Orleans Saints pass attack engineered by quarterback Drew Brees. A road game against the New York Jets is followed by their first meeting with the much-improved Miami Dolphins offense and second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
At present, three of the next four quarterbacks on their schedule are above a 91 passer rating on the season.
Who knows how it will turn out, but by then, we'll definitely be out of caveats.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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