FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots’ pass defense has been very consistent.
It’s one of the worst in the NFL for the third straight year.
But now the secondary is striving to develop a different kind of consistency — a better kind. And with the shuffling of starters apparently at its end, it appears the Patriots are headed that way.
“The more you play, the more you mesh,” cornerback Aqib Talib said Tuesday. “The more time you get together, it definitely helps.”
Talib is the newest and possibly final piece of a puzzle that finally seems to be fitting well after 10 games in which New England allowed the third-most yards passing in the NFL. That’s an improvement over last season, when the Patriots gave up the second-most. And in 2010 they permitted the third-most.
Not that big a deal, safety Steve Gregory said.
It didn’t keep the Patriots from reaching the Super Bowl last season, losing 21-17 to the New York Giants on a last-minute touchdown. And it hasn’t stopped them this season from leading the AFC East by three games with a 7-3 record heading into Thursday night’s visit to the New York Jets.
“Figures lie,” Gregory said after the Patriots allowed 329 yards passing Sunday but routed the Indianapolis Colts, 59-24.
“We don’t pay attention to too many stats. We just focus in on playing good, hard-nosed football and winning football games. At the end of the day, when that clock strikes zero, if we’re on the winning edge, we’re happy.”
Against the Colts, they capitalized on two overthrown passes by Andrew Luck and returned both for touchdowns, 87 yards by rookie Alonzo Dennard and 59 yards by Talib.
“You talk about going out and trying to stop an offense and getting turnovers and all those good things,” Devin McCourty said, “but when you score points, that really lifts your team up.”
For the first four games, McCourty and Kyle Arrington started at cornerback, with Gregory and Patrick Chung at safety. Rookie second-round pick Tavon Wilson started for the injured Gregory the next two games. Then, with Chung sidelined for the seventh game, McCourty moved to safety and Dennard started at cornerback.
Gregory returned for the ninth game, when the Patriots had their fourth different starting secondary of the season. Then Coach Bill Belichick acquired Talib from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Talib made his Patriots debut Sunday after completing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
“As if they need another great player,” Jets Coach Rex Ryan said. “With Belichick, he does a lot of different things on defense to take advantage of players’ talents. It’s going to be really interesting to see what he does with Talib because, if his first game is any indication, that’s not bad. You know, get an interception for a touchdown.
“I really thought (Belichick) should have waited until after we played to play this young man, though.”
Talib knows he made mistakes. He gave up two touchdown receptions by T.Y. Hilton, in fact.
On the second, “I had my eyes in the wrong spot, eyes exactly where they shouldn’t be,” he said, “on the quarterback. So I watched him throw a touchdown on me.”
But after sitting out more than a month with the suspension and trying to adjust to a new team, he expects to improve as he gets used to Belichick’s system.
“Aqib did some good things in the game. There are other things that he’ll work on,” Belichick said. “I think as our group plays together this week and the next game and so forth, hopefully our overall execution as a (defensive) unit can improve. Obviously we haven’t had a chance to do that with him other than a couple of days last week.”
Gregory expects the secondary to get better as Talib gets more experience in it.
“It was good to get out there with him, get the communication things going on with him, understand how he plays in a game atmosphere,” Gregory said.
“Practice is one thing, but when you get out there in live action you kind of get a feel for each other. So that was a great experience for us.”
The Patriots have allowed 47 completions of more than 20 yards this season, nearly five per game. Seventeen came in their three losses And they lost to Baltimore 31-30 on Justin Tucker’s 27-yard field goal on the last play after a 27-yard pass interference call against McCourty gave the Ravens new life.
But two weeks ago, McCourty made the big play in the final minute. He intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick’s pass in the end zone with 23 seconds left when receiver T.J. Graham ran to the wrong spot, allowing the Patriots to hang on for a 37-31 victory against Buffalo.
“If the offense doesn’t score,” McCourty said, “and the (opponent) comes back out and they’re trying to punch another one in, that’s the time when someone really has to step up.”
A week later, Talib did that with his interception for a touchdown. That gave the Patriots the lead for good, 21-14, and they outscored the Colts 38-10 the rest of the way.
It was the start of something big on defense.
In that game and, perhaps, for the rest of the season.
“There’s a lot of, hopefully, room for growth and more consistency and better execution on all levels,” Belichick said. “When you add a new player in there, hopefully that will get better.”