Patriots’ Defense Eyeing Improvement In Lackluster Third-Down Play

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October 20, 2016

FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots’ defense ranks second in the NFL in yards allowed per game, eighth in yards allowed per rush and 10th in yards allowed per play. Anyone who says the unit has been “bad” this season simply has not been paying enough attention.

New England’s D has, however, struggled mightily in a few select areas, most notably on third down.

Through six games, the Patriots have allowed opponents to convert 44.2 percent of their third downs into first downs, which ranks 27th in the league.

“That?s not that good, huh?” Patriots safety and captain Devin McCourty said Wednesday when informed of that stat.

For comparison’s sake, the Seattle Seahawks lead the NFL with an opponents’ conversion rate of 29.9 percent on third down, and 19 of the 32 teams have marks below 40 percent.

“I?d be lying if I said that wasn?t one thing we?ve talked about over and over again, that we need to get better at and we need to focus on it,” McCourty said. “Third down is all about matchups. You?ve got to win individual matchups. Whether it?s in the pass rush, whether it?s in coverage, you?ve got to go out there, and somebody has to make a play to get off the field.

“It?s something that we?ve talked about, and we?ve got to continue to improve on and get better at.”

The Patriots allowed the Arizona Cardinals to convert 63 percent of their third downs in Week 1, then let the Miami Dolphins do so at a 50 percent clip in Week 2. They also struggled in that regard in Week 4, when a massive disparity in third-down success (the Buffalo Bills converted 47 percent to New England’s 8 percent) played a major role in the Patriots’ only loss of the season.

“One of the biggest things we want to do on defense is to try to get off the field on third down,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower, another Patriots captain, said Thursday. “To be able to give the offense, Tom (Brady), give those guys the ball. We do really good on first and second downs, and then third downs have been a little bit of trouble for us.

“We?ve worked on it really hard this week. We?ll have another shot at it (Thursday) so hopefully we?ll be able to get that corrected before the end of the season.”

On a positive note, the Patriots are riding the momentum of a strong second-half performance against the Cincinnati Bengals this past Sunday. After allowing Andy Dalton & Co. to move the chains on five of their first eight third-down opportunities, New England stopped them cold on each of their final four in a 35-17 Patriots win.

Cincinnati’s offense is among the worst in the NFL on third down, however. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who the Patriots play this Sunday, are one of the league’s best teams in that area, although they will be without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 7.

“We?ve played well at times, but obviously, overall, we haven?t,” McCourty said. “It?s something we know we have to work on if we want to try and continue that success, but no matter what, we know we?ve got to try to find a way to win within the game.”

Thumbnail photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports Images

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