An appetite for turnovers
Patriots defense always eager to feed the ball to the offense
FOXBOROUGH - The focus as soon as the Patriots defense takes the field is always on how fast they can get the ball back to the offense.
“Can we do it in one play?’’ said defensive back Devin McCourty. “Can we do it in three plays? That’s always the goal, get the ball back to the offense.’’
They have intercepted 23 passes and recovered 11 fumbles, and with 34 takeaways, they led the AFC for the second straight season.
Forcing turnovers isn’t just luck with the Patriots, it’s a religion.
“We preach turnovers,’’ said nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who picked off two passes this season, forced a fumble, and against the Redskins Dec. 11 recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. “That’s one thing we always preach: We want the ball.’’
Once the defense gets it, the offense more often than not cashes in. Of the 34 turnovers, 13 have led to touchdowns, 11 to field goals. The Patriots have scored 513 points this season, and 124 - nearly 25 percent - have come off takeaways.
“We know the type of offense we have is going to put up points,’’ said Wilfork. “They’re going to do something special on that side. So the more we can get them the ball, the better off we are as a team. That’s one of our main emphases.’’
In Week 13 against Indianapolis, when Matthew Slater forced Colts running back Delone Carter to cough the football up near midfield and Kyle Arrington recovered, it led to a 66-yard scoring drive that ended in a 2-yard Rob Gronkowski scoring run that put the the Patriots up, 31-3. They would need that score in a 31-24 win.
“That’s good complementary football,’’ Slater said. “Good team football. That’s what we teach around here, playing all phases, playing together and complementing one another.
“So that just shows you our offense has been very opportunistic in taking advantage of those opportunities.’’
There is almost always a point in the game when players know they need a turnover.
“There’s probably a lot of times in the middle of a game, going back and forth, one of the guys is just like, ‘Someone step up. We’ve got to get a play,’ ’’ McCourty said. “Whether it’s a turnover or a three-and-out, just something to spring the team and get the offense back on the field and give us an opportunity put points on the board.
“A couple times throughout games, we’ll say, ‘Somebody make a play, let’s make a play.’ ’’
Four times this season, the Patriots have been able to put games to bed with a turnover, including the Redskins game when Rex Grossman marched Washington down to the 9-yard line with a chance to tie, only to have his final pass picked off by Jerod Mayo at the 5, sealing a 34-27 win.
“I think there are those times in a game where you feel like you’d like to snatch momentum if you could,’’ Slater said. “If you can make a play at a certain point in a game, you feel like it’d help you out.’’
The past three weeks, the Patriots have had to dig themselves out of holes, seemingly putting more pressure on the defense to come up with plays. They fell behind Denver, 16-7, but three turnovers - including a Tim Tebow fumble - got them back in the game.
They were down, 17-0, to Miami before two takeaways swung the momentum. And last week against Buffalo, Ryan Fitzpatrick got the Bills out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead but then threw four picks, three of which led to touchdowns.
“Most of the time, the times we’ve been down, we’ve actually had to calm down,’’ Wilfork said. “I think the tougher the game gets, the more settled we get.
“We never lose our poise. You get frustrated at times, but at the same time, you go out there and everyone has their poise, everyone’s calm, and once we’re calm, we make more plays.
“I know it’s funny. You’re down 21 points, and [you’d think] you’re over there screaming and hollering and trying to fix everything, but that wasn’t the case. It’s more settle down and play football. Plays will come, just believe what you see.’’
The teams with the three best records in football are also by far the top three in takeaway/giveaway differential. San Francisco finished at plus-28, Green Bay was plus-24, and New England was plus-17. The only playoff teams with more giveaways than takeaways are New Orleans (minus-3), Denver (minus-12), and Pittsburgh (an AFC-worst minus-13)
“If you can create turnovers for your ball club, any team is pretty successful with that, but especially our team,’’ Wilfork said. “Just the way those guys put up points and how explosive we are offensively, it’s always good to get our offense the ball.’’
With a first-round bye, the Patriots have to wait to see which team they’ll face in their first playoff game.
“Whoever we face is going to be a good team,’’ Wilfork said. “They’re going to make plays. That’s one thing I can guarantee you. They’re going to make plays. We’re going to make plays. Who makes the most plays, that’s what it’s going to come down to.
“Who gets the turnovers? Who can create field position? Who scores points? Who can get stops in the red area?
“It’s going to come down to a critical point in the game where you’re going to have to make a play, whatever that play may be. We won’t know until that situation pops up. But I like our chances.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.