FOXBORO - For most of the 68 plays the Green Bay Packers ran last night, there was really nothing there.
They made plays. A 51-yard throw to Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the third quarter soon followed by a 15-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham; two more throws to Scantling on the ensuing drive. But even on those, the plays made were because of Green Bay, not the Patriots.
There'd been too many times in the first eight games when the Patriots were complicit in big plays made against their defense.
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Secondary breakdowns exploited by Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. Pass-rush breakdowns against Chicago.
But in this game, the rush and the coverage worked in concert and made Aaron Rodgers have to "work for every yard" as Tom Brady described it in his postgame press conference.
It started early with Adrian Clayborn – who had a neutral-zone infraction earlier on the first drive – bringing a third-down pressure in the red zone that forced a Rodgers fallaway throw that didn't have enough heat to beat Stephon Gilmore in coverage on Davante Adams.
On the Patriots second drive, de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores sent another pressure on third down and Devin McCourty forced an incompletion.
It went that way most of the night. Clayborn, Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise and Kyle Van Noy were among the most noticeable bringing heat on Rodgers that made him drift. And when he drifted, the secondary plastered and gave Rodgers few open options as the "just get open" portion of the play began.
"We're better because we've worked harder and we've improved and we've gotten better," said Bill Belichick.
"There's no shortcut to it. You just can't draw a couple of carrots on a page and that all of a sudden takes care of it. You've got to go out there and work on the field and compete and get better. Those guys have done a great job of that.
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"You have to work together to rush Aaron," he added. "He's just got such a good feel in the pocket. He just finds space very well and he's fast to get out if you don't have him contained. They really worked together to try and coordinate that. I thought even the times that he got out, we had him pretty good – it's just not quite good enough against him. But we had the right idea, so we just kept trying to get at him. We had a couple of hits and sacks there at the end. The big third-down sack there at the end with about five minutes to go in the game got the ball back for us. That was a big play."
Gilmore spent most of the night chasing Adams around and held him to 40 yards on six catches while Rodgers completed 24 of 39 for 259 yards.
The best exchange for the Patriots defense came after that touchdown to Graham.
A failed Patriots drive gave Green Bay the ball at their own 1. They picked up 3 yards on first down then Jason McCourty made back-to-back solid plays in coverage to force a punt. When the Packers got it back, two consecutive throws to Valdes-Scantling required brilliant catches.
Then Lawrence Guy forced a fumble on Aaron Jones the Patriots turned into a touchdown. On the Packers next drive, Flowers and Clayborn combined on a third-down sack.
With the Patriots at 7-2 and having one more game at Tennessee before the break, they finally got the payoff they'd been saying would come.
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After weeks of saying, "We just gotta [fill in the blank]" all blanks were filled leaving the great Aaron Rodgers looking like a garden-variety version of himself.
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