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New England Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler, second from left, sacks Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield in the first half Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

When NFL quarterbacks were putting up dizzying numbers last season and offenses were making rugged defensive play look like part of the game’s past, league leaders were unconcerned. There is no such thing as too much scoring in the NFL, given how star quarterbacks and wide-open play make for a pleasing-to-watch product.

But even amid that scoring frenzy, there was a feeling that defensive players and coaches would find a way to make a comeback.

“Whenever you see a spike one way or the other,” Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, the chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, said near the midway point of the 2018 season, “I think you will see a period of adjustment.”

That is indeed what is happening this season. Scoring is down from last season. And two defense-first teams, the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers, have the NFL’s only unblemished records, putting them on a possible collision course for a Super Bowl meeting in Miami.

The shift started with last season’s Super Bowl, when the New England defense bottled up the supposedly dynamic offense of the Los Angeles Rams and the Patriots won, 13-3. The Patriots have carried that defensive dominance into this season, shutting down opposing offenses while also generating turnovers and even scoring touchdowns with stunning frequency.

“I think each time now we step on the field it’s like, ‘All right, we’ve got to get two or three turnovers,’ each time,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said after Sunday’s win over the Cleveland Browns. “And I think it’s not just interceptions. It’s not just sack-fumbles. It’s just an awareness to hunt the football.”

The Patriots have allowed 61 points halfway through their season, putting their opponents on course to score 122. The NFL record for the fewest points permitted in a 16-game season is the 165 yielded by the Baltimore Ravens in 2000. The New England defense has allowed four touchdowns and has scored four touchdowns. The Patriots have 19 interceptions and have surrendered two touchdown passes.

“It’s rare you come out of the game plus in the turnover ratio and you lose,” McCourty said. “So that’s something we’re always thinking about.”

There had been an average of 44.9 points scored per game this season through Week 8, down from the 48.2 through eight weeks of last season. Teams scored a record number of touchdowns last year and amassed the second-highest single-season point total in league history. Quarterbacks had a passer rating of 92.9, the highest ever.

It was enough to make some defensive players wonder whether the rules had been tilted too far in favor of passers and pass catchers, given the safety-related restrictions on hitting quarterbacks and receivers, as well as the prohibitions on defenders using clutching-and-grabbing tactics in the secondary.

So what has changed this season?

NFL leaders seem to believe the scoring drop is largely attributable to a string of injuries to high-profile quarterbacks that sidelined, among others, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees of New Orleans, Carolina’s Cam Newton and Jacksonville’s Nick Foles. They point out that scoring this season remains above the level from 2017, when injuries also put a number of star quarterbacks on the shelf and the average game featured 43.8 combined points through Week 8.

The NFL does not appear overly concerned, with TV viewership remaining on the upswing this season. Teams still had totaled the fourth-most touchdowns ever through Week 8 of any season. And the defensive success being enjoyed by the Patriots and 49ers is not, in the view of many within the league, easy to duplicate, given the presence of Bill Belichick in New England and the combination of talent and coaching at work in San Francisco.

“You’re talking about a coaching genius on one hand and a team with first-round picks all over the place on defense in the other case,” a front office executive with another NFL franchise said.

Belichick is believed to have taken a more hands-on approach to coaching the defense this season after his de facto defensive coordinator, linebackers coach Brian Flores, took the Miami Dolphins’ head coaching job following the Super Bowl. Belichick also has at his disposal one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks in Stephon Gilmore and a defense overflowing with trusted veterans such as McCourty, safety Patrick Chung and linebackers Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy.

Yet it was the Niners, not the Patriots, who actually led the NFL in total defense (based on yards allowed) entering their game Thursday night at Arizona. The 49ers also led the league in pass defense and were ranked second, behind the Patriots, in scoring defense. They allowed 25 points to the Cardinals but won, 28-25, to join the Patriots at 8-0.

“It’s really not thinking about, ‘Oh, let’s shut them out,’ ” defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said after a 9-0 victory over the Washington Redskins in a rain-soaked game last month at FedEx Field. “It’s just more of approaching the game like we do every week. Our objective is to get the ball back to the offense and stop the other offense from scoring.”

That’s working out just fine after the 49ers devoted major resources to their defense in the offseason.

They traded a second-round draft pick to the Kansas City Chiefs for defensive end Dee Ford and signed him to five-year, $87.5 million contract extension. They signed linebacker Kwon Alexander to a four-year, $54 million deal in free agency. They used the No. 2 overall selection in the draft on Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa.

Bosa became the fourth defensive lineman taken in the first round by the 49ers in the past five NFL drafts following Arik Armstead in 2015, Buckner in ’16 and Solomon Thomas in ’17. Now Bosa could be the league’s defensive rookie of the year, and the Niners, with their defense overseen by respected coordinator Robert Saleh, have 30 sacks in eight games.

It’s not as if the Patriots and 49ers have abandoned offense. Both have prominent quarterbacks with Tom Brady in New England and his former Patriots understudy, Jimmy Garoppolo, in San Francisco. The Patriots lead the league in scoring offense and the 49ers were third in that category entering Thursday’s game, in which Garoppolo threw four touchdown passes.

But these are teams for which the defenses usually do the heavy lifting. Tight end George Kittle said the offensive players for the Niners get excited when watching the defense do something great.

“Yeah, the whole team feels it,” Kittle said. “And it’s awesome.”


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