FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Two weeks ago the New England Patriots trailed the Denver Broncos 24-0 at the half before rallying to win in overtime, 34-31. Last week the Patriots trailed the Houston Texans 17-7 at the half before coming back for a 34-31 victory.
In each instance the Patriots’ offense, led by Tom Brady, was lauded for its ability to turn things around, to bring New England back from the brink.
Lost in this discussion, however, is the fact that the defense also has played better in the second half of each game. Not perfect by any means, but better.
They held the Broncos, with the NFL’s most potent and prolific offense, to seven points in the second half plus overtime. Peyton Manning completed just half of his 22 passes for 81 yards. Then they held the Texans to 14 points, Houston gaining just 48 yards rushing.
Matt Patricia, the Patriots’ defensive coordinator, credits the players for making in-game adjustments. But the players say it’s a collaborative effort.
“I think our coaches do a great job of coming in at halftime and really presenting to us how a team is trying to attack us and making adjustments to contain that stuff,’’ said strong safety Steve Gregory. “And I think we take it upon ourselves as players to go out and put together a good second half, and go out and win the football game.’’
The adjustments have come in the form of personnel. Against the Broncos they played almost exclusively in a nickel package in the second half, with an extra defensive back, along with linebackers Dane Fletcher and Jamie Collins. Both are quicker, more athletic and capable of dropping back into pass coverage. That fostered the ability to use a 3-4 defense, from the 4-3, to take advantage of the athleticism of Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones.
Whatever the adjustment, the defense has made more stops.
The Broncos, for instance, were just 4 of 9 in third-down conversions in the second half (after going 5 of 9 in the first half), while Houston was just 1 of 5 (after going 4 of 6). That gives the offense more opportunities to score and Brady and Co., haven’t disappointed.
But Ninkovich wants to do even better.
“As a defensive player, you don’t want to have that happen,’’ he said. “You don’t want it to come down to your offense having to win the game for you. You always want to put yourself in a positive (situation) where defensively you give as many chances to the offense. But, you know, we haven’t done our best to stop the run.’’
The Patriots have the second-worst run defense in the NFL, giving up an average of 138.2 yards per game. Of course, there’s some personnel reasons for that. Early in the year, when the Patriots had nose tackle Vince Wilfork, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo – all out with season-ending injuries suffered in three consecutive games – they had one of the league’s better run defenses.
But entering Sunday’s game with the Cleveland Browns at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots have seen their defensive stats skyrocket in the six games they’ve played without those three. They are giving up 21.8 more rushing yards per game without them, and 7.8 more points. The Patriots are now giving up an average of 21.8 points per game.
Rob Chudzinski, the Browns coach, points to those injuries –as well as others that have kept defensive backs Aqib Talib and Steve Gregory out of the lineup for a couple of game – as handicapping the Patriots defense.
But, he noted, “The thing about the defense I see is that they make key plays at key times.’’
Especially in the second half.
Early in the third quarter of the Denver game, with New England trailing 24-7, Fletcher forced a fumble that was recovered by Brandon Spikes, leading to a touchdown. Then, early in the fourth, with New England trailing 24-21, Logan Ryan intercepted Manning, leading to the go-ahead touchdown.
Against Houston, the Patriots held the Texans to 23 total yards on their last three series.
Ninkovich, who is third on the team with 71 tackles, said it often isn’t as complicated as it might seem.
“As far as defense, it’s not rocket science out there,’’ said Ninkovich “Everyone has a gap, everyone’s got to be in a specific spot. So if you’re not there, and you’re in someone else’s spot, that’s where the trouble begins.
“So it’s about being accountable for your job and doing your job to the best of your ability.’’
“Each week presents a different challenge,’’ he said. “Every team presents something different. Sometimes it’s not necessarily making changes, it’s just going out and doing your job a little better.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one specific (adjustment) because every week presents something different.’’
Neither Gregory nor Ninkovich are concerned about the number of points the Patriots are allowing lately. They only care about one statistic, and that’s the win column.
“Our ultimate goal is to win a football game,’’ said Gregory. “Whether that’s 31-30 or 10-0, it really doesn’t matter. We’ve just got to find a way to come out with a win.
“As long as we’re doing that, we’re going to be OK. Now, is there room for improvement? Of course. Are there situations we’d like to be better at? Yeah. Obviously you never want to give up a lot of points. You want to give up zero points every week. But that’s just not reality. For us, the main focus is to come back, week in and week out, and continue to find ways to play good solid football on defense. If we can continue to do that, it will help us down the stretch.’’
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: