FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots’ defense elicited some bad words out of their fanbase during the first half of Sunday’s 35-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
After allowing Andy Dalton to go 13-of-16 passing for 143 yards in the first half, when the Bengals scored just seven points, the Patriots’ defense was called bad, atrocious, horrendous and worse words that probably shouldn’t be displayed on NESN.com.
I tried to calm folks down. “Let the game play out.” “All will even out.”
The Patriots wound up allowing just 164 total yards and 10 more points in the second half.
Overall, they allowed the Bengals to score touchdowns just twice on four red-zone chances, and Cincinnati converted on just 5 of 12 third-down attempts. Even the Patriots’ pass rush stepped up with two sacks and a safety in the second half.
The Patriots showed improvement where they needed to. They entered the game allowing touchdowns on eight of 10 red-zone opportunities and for opposing teams to convert on 44.6 percent of third-down attempts. Their third-down defense still must improve, but they made major strides in the red zone, preventing a score altogether on a turnover on downs at the 1-yard line. They entered the game averaging less than two sacks per game and came out with two.
The Patriots entered the game ranked fourth in the NFL, allowing just 14.6 points per game — some would say the most important metric to judge a defense. They exited it allowing 15 points per game, which now will rank third in the NFL. That’s big.
It’s understandable why Patriots fans are upset, however. The defense only plays up to its full potential for stretches. Against the Bengals, it was in the second half. Against the Miami Dolphins in Week 2, it was in the first half. Against the Houston Texans in Week 3, it was all game. And against the Cleveland Browns last week, it was after the opening drive.
Fans were happy after the Patriots shut out the Texans. Otherwise, many have acted like they didn’t get enough full-size candy bars in their trick-or-treat bag.
“Consistency is everything,” cornerback Malcolm Butler said Sunday. “You just gotta be what you’re going to be. You can’t be off and on.”
Butler was mostly on, but he was off when he allowed a 5-yard touchdown pass to former Patriots receiver Brandon LaFell early in the third quarter. Otherwise, Butler allowed three catches on seven targets for 17 yards with three pass breakups. Even including the touchdown, Butler showed why he’s regarded as a No. 1 cornerback.
And talent certainly isn’t an issue on the Patriots’ defense. Many, myself included, wrote they have the potential to be one of the NFL’s best units because of that talent in all three levels of their defense — from Jabaal Sheard and Malcom Brown up front, to Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins in the middle and Butler and Devin McCourty in the secondary. The rest of their defense — Chris Long, Rob Ninkovich, Alan Branch, Logan Ryan and Patrick Chung — all are above-average or better players.
So it’s easy to see why Patriots fans are frustrated that the defense can’t be dominant from kickoff until the whistle blows at the end of the fourth quarter. But they’re winning, and they aren’t allowing many points.
Patriots fans also must always find something to complain about, so their furor has been directed toward the pass rush, red-zone and third-down defense. They should improve, and if they don’t, they’re still putting their offense in position to win games.
Thumbnail photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports Images