FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Something important was missing from the New England Patriots’ defense besides some of its best players.
The Patriots’ injury-filled defense ended a two-game takeaway drought by grabbing four in a surprising 41-7 rout of the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.
“We really put a lot of emphasis into it (last) week,” Coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “We have to continue to do that.”
The defense had at least one turnover in 36 consecutive regular-season games until that streak ended in the 10th game this season, a 24-20 loss at Carolina.
It produced four the next week in a 34-31 overtime win over Denver. In the next three games, though, it had only one, although the Patriots got another on special teams after a fumbled snap by Miami on a field-goal attempt in a 24-20 loss to the Dolphins.
But the defense was back in form a week later in Baltimore.
The Patriots (11-4) clinched their fifth straight AFC East title earlier in the day when Miami lost to Buffalo.
Then they tied their season high of four takeaways.
“There’s no statistic that correlates more to winning than turnovers,” Belichick said.
Rookie cornerback Logan Ryan intercepted two of Joe Flacco’s passes, backup safety Tavon Wilson returned Tyrod Taylor’s throw 74 yards for a touchdown and end Chandler Jones recovered a fumble in the end zone.
“We’ve been working on (turnovers) all week. They gave us some opportunities and we took advantage of them,” Wilson said. “Every time you get the ball on defense, you’re looking to return it for a touchdown.”
Wilson is just the latest substitute to contribute. The Patriots have needed plenty of them.
Their injured reserve list includes some of their best defensive players.
One starting tackle, Vince Wilfork went there after the fourth game. The other, Tommy Kelly, played only five games before joining him, and linebacker Jerod Mayo went on the list after the sixth game.
The secondary also has been battered with Aqib Talib missing three games, Alfonzo Dennard sitting out three of the past six and Steve Gregory being sidelined for two.
On Sunday, safety Devin McCourty didn’t return after suffering a head injury early in the third quarter.
So rookies and young free agents have had to learn on the fly.
“It’s not Week 1 anymore,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “Obviously, we’re far enough along that everyone that is active and ready to go in the game we expect to understand what we’re doing.”
Turnovers aren’t the only big plays his defense is making. It sacked Flacco four times and had a big stop on fourth-and-1.
The Patriots were leading 20-0, but the Ravens needed just 1 yard from the New England 4-yard line with 3:03 left in the third quarter. Flacco started in the shotgun formation, then went under center, took the snap and handed the ball to Ray Rice.
But defensive end Rob Ninkovich and safety Duron Harmon, who replaced McCourty, stopped him for no gain.
“That was huge,” Belichick said. “It was definitely a heads-up play from our guys up front.”
Ryan’s two interceptions also had a big impact.
“He’s got good ball skills and good hands,” Belichick said. “It’s that awareness and instinctiveness that’s obviously so hard to teach, but it’s something that he just naturally does.”
On his first interception, linebacker Dont’a Hightower tipped the ball and Ryan caught it. That led to the first touchdown of the game.
On the second interception, the pass deflected into Ryan’s hands off tight end Dennis Pitta. That set up a field goal that made it 17-0 midway through the third quarter.
The last two turnovers – Jones’ easy recovery of a botched snap and Wilson’s interception – drew huge smiles from Tom Brady on the sideline.
But they came in the last two minutes, after the outcome was decided, so Belichick isn’t getting carried away.
“The evaluation of a unit or a team has to extend a lot further than one game,” he said.
The Patriots can clinch a first-round playoff bye Sunday at home against the Bills (6-9), who were tied for the eighth-most giveaways in the NFL after their 19-0 win Sunday over Miami.
Another big day for the Patriots defense?
“Let’s see if we can play with this kind of consistency consecutively,” Belichick said. “I think then we’ll have a little better gauge of how things are coming along.”