How Do Patriots Fix Their Defense? ‘No Magic Wand,’ Bill Belichick Says

Just how bad has the New England Patriots’ defense been through the first month of the 2017 NFL season?

Consider this: During the first 17 years of Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach, the Patriots never allowed 33-plus points more than three times in any given regular season.

This year, they’ve done so three times in their first four games.

How did this happen? How did a unit that surrendered the fewest points in the NFL in 2016 suddenly become a turnstile after seemingly getting better this offseason? That’s a question the Patriots must answer, and quickly, with their “Thursday Night Football” matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fast approaching.

“Well, collectively, playing and coaching, we just have to work harder to get things right,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in a conference one day after his team lost to the Carolina Panthers 33-30 at Gillette Stadium. “And that’s everybody. There’s no magic wand here, so we’re just going to have to work hard to get it right.”

That message of hard work mirrored postgame quotes from New England’s defensive backs, who preached the need for greater focus after Sunday’s loss. The secondary, projected to be the deepest and most talented position group on the Patriots’ defense, has been an absolute mess this season, allowing an NFL-worst 1,296 passing yards and 9.4 yards per attempt and frequently leaving receivers wide open downfield.

High-priced cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who signed a five-year, $65 million contract this spring, has been the easiest target for critics, as he’s been involved in several coverage breakdowns and also committed four costly penalties. Gilmore was whistled for illegal hands to the face twice against Carolina, including one flag on the Panthers’ game-winning drive that wiped away a third-down sack.

“We need fewer penalties, period,” Belichick said. “We had too many of them all throughout the game in multiple areas. So it doesn’t really matter what we think. The only thing that matters is what the guy who has the flags thinks. So we have to do a better job of coaching and playing in a way that we don’t get penalized.”

But while Gilmore has yet to live up to his price tag this season, he’s not the only problem. Neither Malcolm Butler nor Devin McCourty excelled in coverage Sunday, and Eric Rowe missed two third-down tackles before leaving the game with an injury.

“I mean, look, I think everybody on our team has room for improvement,” Belichick said. “Coaches, players, all of us. So you can put everybody into that group. We all need to work harder. We all need to do a better job.”

Ironically, the Patriots’ pass rush, which most pundits pointed to as the team’s greatest weakness entering training camp, actually fared relatively well against the Panthers, sacking Cam Newton twice and pressuring him throughout the afternoon.

“Really throughout the game, I thought we were OK rushing the quarterback,” Belichick said. “We hit him a couple of times but he got the ball off, but I think the rush was competitive. I mean, obviously, it could be better. I’m not saying it was great, but there were times we beat blockers and got to the quarterback, got close to the quarterback, and a couple of times he got rid of the ball.”

Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images

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