FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots keep winning despite a defense that keeps struggling.
They’re missing tackles, giving receivers plenty of space and allowing long gains. Coach Bill Belichick, admired for his defensive brilliance, hasn’t figured out how to get his players to correct all that so they won’t need to make game-saving plays late in the fourth quarter.
“There are a lot of things that we can do a lot better,” linebacker Jerod Mayo said Monday, “just starting with the fundamentals. Tackling, going out there executing the plays that the coaches call and going out there and getting off of the field on third down are things that we have to improve on.”
It took an interception in the end zone by Devin McCourty with 23 seconds left to secure a 37-31 win over the struggling Bills on Sunday. That was less of an outstanding play by McCourty, who caught a ball thrown right to him, than it was a poor one by Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and intended receiver T.J. Graham, who took the blame for it.
Just three week earlier, the Patriots got another turnover on their opponent’s last offensive play and escaped with a 29-26 overtime win against the New York Jets. That time, Mark Sanchez fumbled when he was sacked and Rob Ninkovich recovered, ending the game.
But in the third game of the season, the defense couldn’t stop the Baltimore Ravens when they got the ball at their 21-yard line with 1:55 left. They made it all the way to the Patriots 9 before Justin Tucker kicked a 27-yard field goal on the final play to give the Ravens a 31-30 win.
“We’re lucky that (Sunday) we were not really at our best but still able to win and make enough plays to win. We’ve also been in a couple games kind of like that that we didn’t win,” Belichick said. “You hate to leave it to come down to one play like that, have a little more control of the game than that. That’s the National Football League, too. There are an awful lot of games that come down to that one possession, one play.”
The defense has been saved by its knack for forcing turnovers at critical times. It leads the AFC with 23 takeaways and is first in the NFL with 13 fumble recoveries. One of the Patriots’ two recoveries against Buffalo came at their 1-yard line with the score 34-24 and 9:35 left in the game.
Still, they allowed one of the weakest teams in the NFL to run up big numbers.
The Bills set a club record with 35 first downs. They also gained a season-high 481 yards. Their previous best? Also against the Patriots, 438 yards in a 52-28 loss in the fourth game of the season.
The Patriots have allowed the eighth-most yards in the league, 382.1 per game. They may not think about that when they’re just trying to make a play, but McCourty is concerned.
“We worry about that,” he said.
Thanks largely to their prolific offense — they lead the NFL with 430.3 yards and 33.2 points per game — the Patriots are 6-3, the only winning record in the AFC East.
“We can always get better and do things a little differently,” defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “There are some scheme and fundamental things we’d like to clean up, but we got away with a ‘W’ to be 6-3. You’ve got to be proud of that.”
Their performances against some of the NFL’s weaker quarterbacks are nothing to rave above.
Fitzpatrick, Sanchez and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks threw for their highest yardage totals this season against the Patriots. Joe Flacco, a better passer for one of the top teams, did that with the Ravens.
The Patriots also have been vulnerable to the big play. They’ve allowed 44 completions of more than 20 yards, nearly five a game. Fitzpatrick had five of those on Sunday.
New England expects cornerback Aqib Talib, obtained from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to improve the defense when he plays his first game with the Patriots next Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. While the Patriots were playing the Bills, he completed his four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
He’ll practice with the Patriots for the first time on Wednesday.
“It will be a big week for us, a big game versus the Colts,” McCourty said. “Just to get another guy out there that you know is a good player, it will be exciting.”
The defense certainly can use the help after Sunday’s struggles.
“We had two or three sacks in the game. Guys were out there playing physical,” Mayo said. “Those are some of the things that you can take away and build on. But, at the same time, it’s hard to look at those things when you give up 30-something points in a game.”