FOXBORO -- You can't appreciate how good the Patriots passing defense has looked in 2013 without sitting it next to last season's numbers.
When the subject of explosive plays came up in Bill Belichick's Friday press conference, the coach beat everyone to the punch.
"We had a ton of them last year."
That's a fact. New England's defense gave up a league-worst 74 plays of over 20 yards in 2012. It also surrendered eight plays of 40 or more yards.
This season, the Patriots 'D' is currently in the Top 5 after surrendering just eight plays of 20 or more yards, and has not yet been torched for one over 40.
A sure improvement. But Belichick's attitude toward explosive plays encompasses more than what shows up on the stat sheets.
"Any play that's significant defensively, we're aware of that as a potential repeat play for somebody else to look at it," he explained. "Even if they miss it, we look at it as a big play. Say they overthrew it or something, but it's open, the next team may look at it and say, I feel like that's a good opportunity. So we look at that as a big play as far as trying to correct it and do a better job with it ourselves."
The way he sees it, measuring yardage doesn't always properly quantify the impact of a play.
"Sometimes there's a couple big plays where you're right there and feel like you should make a play. We had a couple last year where a ball went off our hands and went for a 40-yard catch and it really could have been an interception. If you're the other team looking at that, you might be saying, 'Is that the play we really want to run, or did they just have a fortunate result with it?'"
It's hard to ignore the numbers when considering Atlanta.
The Falcons have already executed 10 plays of over 20 yards this season, and five of them belong to Julio Jones. Jones also has one of the team's two receptions over 40 (T-7th): an 81-yard touchdown catch. It's not as though opponents don't recognize his talent -- Jones is the only receiver in league history to have an 80-plus yard catch in each of his first three seasons -- he's just that hard to cover.
The Patriots might have Talib shadow Jones as he did last week against Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson. The sure-handed receiver had just three catches on six targets for 34 yards before leaving the game in the fourth quarter with a rib injury.
But Atlanta has other serious receiving threats, especially if Roddy White shrugs off his ankle injury and gets in the game, who can bother the passing 'D'.
Limiting those plays is crucial every week, it's just that the Falcons are well-equipped to give New England its first true test this season. The Patriots will either prove they've tightened up, or show shades of past porousness.
"There's always plays like that you feel like you might be a little light on, and you don't want to be light in the deep part of the field. If you're going to be light, you want it to be in the flat or something underneath, somewhere where a lot of guys can still make a tackle. You don't want to be light on stuff over your head, stuff that's 20, 25, 30 yards down the field," Belichick said.
"You want to make sure those get pointed out and corrected, or eventually it's going to come back and get you."