The most overlooked element of the New England Patriots – because everyone talks about Tom Brady and the great offense – is how good their pass defense has been. They have defended the pass so well this season is because all three levels are contributing. That’s huge going into Sunday’s matchup against the Green Bay Packers. The front has been really good. The Patriots traded this season for Akeem Ayers, a former second-round pick from Tennessee, and he has stepped right into the pass-rushing spot vacated when Chandler Jones got hurt. Ayers has been a key piece to the defense. At linebacker Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower are playing really well. Both of them stay on the field in all situations and cover a lot of ground, which helps the Patriots mix and match elsewhere on the defense. Collins in particular is big and can run really well. Those two are so versatile, Bill Belichick can use them however he needs and figure out the best matchups for his other players. [ Join FanDuel.com’s $1.75M Week 13 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 14,530 teams paid ] Then come the biggest pieces of the Patriots’ defense, which has dictated their scheme during this winning streak: cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis. Browner has been terrific the last few weeks. Last week, Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson could not get open against him. He’s not a great matchup against small, shifty receivers, but he has been doing a fine job against any big receiver. Revis looks really smooth lately. It looks easy for him. He looks almost like he did against the Jets, when he played at an incredibly high level. He moves with a different smoothness than everyone else. Because of all those pieces, and especially the cornerbacks, the Patriots have played a lot of man coverage. They have used man coverage a little more than 70 percent of the time since Browner returned from suspension, which is a fairly high percentage for Belichick. A lot of that has been “man free lurk,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if they use a lurk defender this week to spy on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on third down. Rodgers doesn’t often take off and run, but he’ll do it enough on third downs to move the chains in big spots. I don’t think the Patriots will put Browner on Jordy Nelson. Revis might travel some to cover Nelson. As for what the Patriots might do with Randall Cobb, cornerback Kyle Arrington matched up with Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton in the slot on 28 snaps when the two teams met, and Hilton had three catches for 24 yards against him. Nobody knows what Belichick will do, but he has provided some clues. The Patriots will use safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty as interchangeable pieces in the dime and nickel packages, with either playing deep or down in the box in man coverage. That’s just another way the Patriots are versatile, and can throw different looks at an offense through a game. The Packers have an explosive passing game with Rodgers, especially when he’s able to play at the edge of the offense’s structure and make plays late in the down. But Green Bay has a really tough matchup this week. Gordon returns Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon returned from a 10-game suspension last week against Atlanta, and the Browns used him as usual. He lined up outside and in the slot, was targeted 16 times and caught eight passes for 120 yards. He showed great ability with the ball in his hands after the catch, especially on some bubble screens. And Gordon made the biggest play on a game-winning drive. With 32 seconds left, the Falcons ran a “Cover 3” zone behind a four-man rush. Quarterback Brian Hoyer was forced to move due to an edge rush. He made a great throw over the safety to Gordon on a deep in-breaking route. It was a very tight window throw by Hoyer, and it gained 24 yards.
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