FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots’ defense has been a hot topic since the draft. That weekend, the team invested in potential impact defensive players.
In came pass rusher Chandler Jones, versatile linebacker Dont’a Hightower, defensive back Tavon Wilson, and Jake Bequette, who had enjoyed success getting to quarterbacks at Arkansas.
They joined safety Steve Gregory, defensive tackle Jonathan Fanene, and defensive end Trevor Scott, who had signed as free agents.
It seemed at last that the team had addressed the lack of pass rush, a problem that had led to lesser quarterbacks looking stellar in games against the Patriots.
Now, however, the unit might be trending downward.
To start with, Fanene is long gone, Scott hasn’t made much of an impact after impressing in spring camps, and Bequette hasn’t shown enough to be on the game-day roster.
And certain numbers are heading the wrong way for the Patriots, such as points allowed per game, third-down stops, quarterback completion percentage, and sacks/pressures.
The numbers against Baltimore last Sunday night weren’t good, with New England giving up a little more than 500 yards, half of the third-down opportunities it faced, 5 yards per carry to Ray Rice, and a 71.4 percent completion mark for Joe Flacco.
The Patriots were credited with a single quarterback hit, which is difficult to comprehend. Kyle Love did take down Flacco in the fourth quarter, but the sack was negated by a holding call on Brandon Spikes.
In Week 1 in Tennessee, New England had success against the run but did allow Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck to complete two-thirds of their passes. The Patriots also had two sacks and five quarterback hits.
A week later, it was one sack and four hits against a Cardinals offensive line considered porous.
Then, there was Baltimore.
As the Patriots said time and again this week leading to their first AFC East game of the year, against the Bills, it’s early in the season, and defensive leaders weren’t willing to say the group had taken a step back against the Ravens.
“I mean, there’s some things that we can do better, but there’s a lot of things we did well in that game,” said Vince Wilfork. “Each week there’s going to be some things like that. You want to be able to go out and just dominate the football game, but you play in the NFL, it’s 32 teams and everybody’s fighting, so we just have to keep moving forward.
“I don’t know if we took a step back or not, but I know we can play a lot better. There’s some things on that film that we feel pretty good [about], so everything wasn’t bad. That’s a good sign. Keep moving forward and see where it goes.”
Devin McCourty, the other defensive captain, largely echoed Wilfork’s thoughts.
“I feel like we did some things not as well as we have and we still have to improve. I think [it’s wrong] to worry about taking steps forward and backward; each week is different,” McCourty said. “If we play great one week I don’t think that means we’ve taken all these steps forward and we can’t go back. I think each week is its own individual week and we have to take steps throughout that week to be ready to go on Sunday.”
The primary concern against Baltimore was the lack of a pass rush. Flacco is one of the better quarterbacks in the league, with a solid receiving corps.
Not pressuring Flacco leads to another problem: the secondary is asked to cover for too long.
When Wes Welker was asked about the Bills’ defensive backs, he unintentionally reinforced that idea.
“They do a great job, they mix it up quite a bit and play a lot of different type of man coverages and they do a good job of that and they have good personnel that fits their scheme,” he said.
“And they have a great rush, which really helps that, as well.”
Wilfork asserted the new faces on the Patriots’ defense have gotten acquainted pretty quickly.
“Just because we dropped two games does not mean that we’re not jelling,” he said. “We just have to do things a lot better; that’s what it’s going to boil down to.
“We have to be more consistent, play well together, and play as a team. We’re going to keep grinding at it, we’re not going to stop, we’re not going to hold our heads down. We’re going to stay after it. It’s a long season.”