Bill Belichick was asked at a press conference recently what the first step is in trying to improve the New England Patriots defense.

“Identifying the problem and addressing the problem,” he said. “Something’s got to be one, something’s got to be two, something’s got to be, whatever, 18. I don’t know. So start with the most important things first, always.”

The Patriots have some choices.

Entering Sunday’s 1 p.m. game at Gillette Stadium with the Carolina Panthers, the Patriots defense is clearly the NFL’s worst.

New England (2-1) ranks last among the NFL’s 32 teams in total defense (giving up 461 yards per game), pass defense (330.7 yards) and points allowed (31.7). Against the run, the Patriots are ranked 26th, allowing 130.3 yards per game.

These are historic numbers for a Belichick-coached Patriots defense. In his 17 years as head coach of New England, Belichick has had defenses that have struggled – in 2011, for example, the Patriots gave up 411.1 total yards and 293.9 passing yards per game, both next-to-last in the NFL, yet they still made it to the Super Bowl – but never has he coached one that has struggled like this across the board. The most points per game the Patriots have given up under Belichick is 21.6, in 2002, one of only three non-playoff years.

The Patriots defense was considered a strength coming into the season, even though several members of last year’s Super Bowl championship team had departed. Defensive ends Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard and cornerback Logan Ryan left as free agents, linebacker/end Rob Ninkovich retired, and linebacker Jonathan Freeney was cut after training camp.

But the Patriots appeared to fill most of their holes. They brought in shutdown cornerback Stephon Gilmore, defensive end Lawrence Guy and linebacker David Harris as free agents. They re-signed linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Duron Harmon and defensive tackle Alan Branch – three free agents they targeted to bring back for their big-play ability and leadership.

They traded for linebacker/end Cassius Marsh from Seattle and cornerback/special teams player Johnson Bademosi from Detroit.

So what has happened?

Tackling has been an issue. Pass coverage has been an issue. The pass rush, with only six sacks in three games, has been an issue.

Certainly injuries have impacted the defense’s effectiveness. Hightower – perhaps the most important player on the Patriots defense – has missed the last two games with a knee injury. Kansas City’s 21-point fourth quarter came with him out of the game. Cornerback Eric Rowe missed last week’s game with a groin injury. Linebacker Shea McClellin, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine and cornerback Cyrus Jones are on the injured reserve list.

And newcomers, who include rookies Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise, Jr., and Harvey Langi, are still adjusting to the Patriots style. Communication has been an issue at times in the secondary – when Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill scored a 75-yard touchdown against Gilmore in the opener, Gilmore was clearly expecting help from the safeties – leading to some huge plays by the opposing offense.

And the Patriots are giving up a ton of big plays.

Already this year the Patriots have given up eight completions of 30 yards or more – after giving up just 16 in all of the 2016 regular season. Of those, four have been to running backs, meaning teams are isolating their backs against Patriots linebackers. New England has also given up three runs of 20 yards or more – after just four in all of 2016.

The Patriots often have been known as a bend-but-don’t-break defense. So far this year, they’re breaking.

The 95 points they’ve given up in the first three games are the most in a three-game span since the Patriots gave up 97 in a three-game span in 2005 (41-17 loss to San Diego, 31-28 win at Atlanta, 28-20 loss at Denver).

Belichick has been known to say from time to time that points are the only defensive stat that really matters. When the Patriots have been at their best, in five Super Bowl championship seasons, they’ve been stingy with points: 2001 (17.0), 2003 (14.9), 2004 (16.2), 2014 (19.6) and 2016 (15.6).

“We’re always looking to give up as few points as possible,” said Belichick. “So there’s a lot of things we can improve on in all three phases of the game – plenty of them on defense, plenty of them on offense, plenty of them on special teams.”

And there’s plenty of time to work on improving the defense. Last year, after three weeks, the Patriots were giving up 361.7 total yards (17th) and 271.3 passing yards (19th) per game. They finished averaging 326.4 total yards (eighth) and 237.9 passing yards (12th).

The Panthers might be just what the Patriots need this week. Carolina’s offense ranks 29th in points scored (15.0), 30th in passing (168.3 yards) and 28th in total offense (276.7 yards).

In the end, it all comes down to one thing.

“We’re always going to have to tackle better,” said Matt Patricia, New England’s defensive coordinator.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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