Patriots defense is elite, but has it solved the mobile quarterback problem?

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By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

The Patriots defense has dominated to start the 2018 season - against pure passers. They have some unfinished business with quarterbacks who can run.

In the first three games, the Patriots' opposing quarterbacks have presented virtually no threat on the ground. Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Fitzpatrick are mainly pocket passers. Luke Falk is barely an NFL-caliber player. Bills second-year QB Josh Allen presents a different challenge, the kind that has given the Patriots fits in recent years.

Physically, Allen is a threat with both his arm strength and his legs. Three games in, he's averaged 4.0 yards per attempt and is one of only two QBs to rush for over 100 yards, the other being the Ravens' Lamar Jackson.

"He's like a running back," said head coach Bill Belichick when asked about Allen Wednesday. "He breaks tackles, he's got good speed, good power and he's shifty and he avoids and breaks a lot of tackles. Yeah, that's another dimension. A sixth receiver in the passing game, if you will, and gives you another blocker in the running game when they have designed run plays for him.

"They use them in some timely ways, well-designed plays that create problems for the defense. He adds that element to their offense and they've used it very effectively."

While the Patriots defense has mastered the art of flummoxing pocket passers, quarterbacks who can take off have been a curious weak spot for them at times. The Patriots allowed 6.89 yards per rush to quarterbacks last season, the highest mark in the NFL. In one of their ugliest defensive breakdowns of 2018, smooth-footed Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky flushed out of the pocket to the 30-yard line before circling back and tap-dancing through the defense for a touchdown.

Of course, the Patriots won that game anyway, 38-31. It speaks to how hard it is to beat the Patriots even while giving their defense trouble. But some of New England's more notable recent regular season losses have involved mobile quarterbacks. For instance, Cam Newton rushed eight times for 44 yards and a touchdown when the Panthers went to Foxboro and stole a 33-30 last-second win in 2017.

If the Bills want to pull off a similar feat, they'll need more than just Allen scrambling around. But the threat remains.

Patriots safety Devin McCourty is well aware of how Allen can force you to defend every blade of grass.

"This will probably be the first test this year of trying to contain a guy, keep him in the pocket and not allow him to make plays all over the field," McCourty said Wednesday. "But, it’s hard on a defense, especially because he’s such a good athlete, that you see guys come free and he’s able to get out of the pocket, make them miss, and now the whole field opens up to him."

Dec 9, 2018; Orchard Park, NY: Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen runs the ball during the first half against the New York Jets at New Era Field. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)
Dec 9, 2018; Orchard Park, NY: Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen runs the ball during the first half against the New York Jets at New Era Field. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

The X-factor in improving against mobile quarterbacks could be linebacker Jamie Collins, who is playing at perhaps an All-Pro level to start the season. He's second in the NFL with five tackles for loss and has added 2.5 sacks, four QB hits, and 19 total tackles. The Patriots haven't had a player like Collins since trading him away in 2016, and now he looks better than ever.

"He came in here in the spring, and I think for him, from a mentality standpoint, he didn’t really come back as Jamie Collins, the guy that was here. He came back almost as a new guy, like, 'Let me prove to these guys that I can, for one, play in this defense, and I can do what the team asks me to do,'" said McCourty. "Since he’s come back, he’s been awesome. He’s always had versatility to be at the end of the line of scrimmage, be inside, standing up at linebacker. And if you ask him, he can go back and play safety, too. So, it’s great just having him out there. He has special athletic ability."

They may need Collins to be special again to keep Allen contained, because it could be hard for the Patriots to score themselves. Keeping the defense's no-touchdown streak alive comes down to keeping Allen out of the end zone, whether it's with his arm or his legs.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].