Guregian: Time to find out if the Patriots defense is legitimate

FOXBORO — One word to describe the Patriots defense?

“Underrated.”

That’s the term former Patriot James White, now an analyst for Sports USA radio, used when asked about the unit, which is off to a good start after the first two games.

Interesting choice.

Wonder what word will be used after the next few weeks, when the Patriots are tasked with trying to slow down Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers in back-to-back games.

To this point, the defense has been a pleasant surprise, allowing just 34 points.

If you take away the scoop-and-score after a strip-sack of Mac Jones in Miami, it’s 27 points. That’s 13.5 points per game, which is good by any measure.

Obviously, those numbers put the Patriots in the category of having one of the league’s top units, and one that might be better than advertised, as White suggested. Because right now, with only a small sample size, the view of how good the defense is largely muted with caution thanks to having a secondary without a bona fide shutdown corner and a linebacking corps with more than a few question marks.

But whether they’re underestimated, or not valued highly enough should become much clearer after the next two games.

Why?

Let’s just say Tua Tagovailoa and Mitchell Trubisky, the two signal-callers faced thus far, wouldn’t exactly be considered a murderer’s row when it comes to quarterbacks. They don’t exactly elicit fear in defenses, although Tagovailoa sure silenced some of his critics with the performance he delivered against the Ravens on Sunday.

Tagovailoa, however, still isn’t in the same league as Jackson and Rodgers, who are considered among the elite quarterbacks in the league. How the Patriots fare against them will paint a better picture of how good their defense might be, and whether the unit is legitimate or not.

Moreover, how the Patriots handle those two will be an early litmus test for the ultimate test down the road — Buffalo’s Josh Allen.

The Patriots couldn’t force a punt that last two times against Allen and the Bills offense, so these next few games will be a better indicator of where they’re headed.

Defensive captain Devin McCourty agreed.

“Any time you play the greats in this league, you’re going to get tested,” he said. “This week, we have Lamar Jackson. Next week, it’s Aaron Rodgers. When you play against those guys, and later against Josh Allen, or a (Patrick) Mahomes — and I’d say (Justin) Herbert is entering that category — you got your work cut out for you.

“You need to play some of your best ball as a defense. Year in and year out, these are the type of teams you play to see where you stack up.”

Right now, statistically, the Patriots are a top-10 scoring defense, and have surrendered the fourth fewest yards of any team.

If they can’t stop the better offenses, however, all of the fancy numbers become moot. Case in point, last season, they were among the best defensive units in the league based on the numbers.

But based on how they fared against the top teams, specifically Buffalo, all of that went out the window. They couldn’t compete with the best.

So first up is Jackson, a dual-threat quarterback who can kill defenses with his running ability and his arm. While some questioned his ability to throw early in his career, Jackson has markedly improved in that area.

In the opening two games this season, he’s completed 64.4% of his passes for 531 yards, six touchdowns and one interception. He also has a 79-yard rushing touchdown.

When he drops back to throw, Jackson typically relies on two-time Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews, while second-year wideout Rashod Bateman has emerged as an outside threat.

There are some who believe Jackson looks better than he did during his MVP season, when he passed for more than 3,100 yards, rushed for more than 1,200 and factored in 43 touchdowns in the regular season.

That’s a scary thought. In the final analysis, Jackson, who is 1-1 against the Pats, just has the ability to change a game in so many different ways. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick put it in perspective on Wednesday.

“There’s challenges every week, but certainly the Ravens have a lot of them,” he said. “It’s the quarterback, it’s his passing game, the running game, his ability to make loose and extended plays, the explosiveness of their receivers and tight ends and him. … We’ll have to do the best we can to defend those threats and schemes that they run.”

The Patriots did a good job minimizing the damage against the Dolphins and all of their elite receiving threats. Ditto the Steelers.

They tackled well, especially against the Men of Steel, and didn’t give up any chunk plays.

If they can do the same against the Ravens, then the Packers, against quarterbacks the caliber of Jackson and Rodgers, it will speak volumes for where the defense truly stands.

“It’s an opportunity as a defense to go against the best,” said McCourty. “If you do a good job, you know, alright, this is now our standard. This is what we’re capable of. And then, we gotta build on that.”

And if not, if they don’t elevate the standard, several other words will be used to define Belichick’s defense. Not many of them will be good.