PITTSBURGH — The New England Patriots’ first-half defensive troubles have become a pesky weekly tradition.
The Patriots give up large chunks of yards, a score or two, can’t get off the field on third down, scare the crap out of fans and then settle down for the win in the second half. That’s certainly what happened Sunday in the Patriots’ 27-16 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
The Patriots allowed Steelers backup quarterback Landry Jones to complete 14 of 20 passes for 179 yards with one touchdown and one interception in the first half. The Steelers out-gained the Patriots 219 yards to 187, and All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown hauled in five catches for 93 yards.
It wasn’t all bad, however. The Steelers converted on just 33 percent of their third-down attempts, and they were 1 of 4 in the red zone — two areas in which the Patriots’ defense has struggled this season. The Patriots led 14-10 at the half, but they were bailed out by a Steelers missed field goal and a costly holding penalty on what would have been a second touchdown pass from Jones to Darrius Heyward-Bey.
The Patriots’ defense then showed their vaunted potential in the second half, allowing just 156 yards and six points. The Patriots didn’t allow the Steelers into the red zone, and they were similarly impressive on third down, allowing conversions on just 30 percent of attempts. Sure, they were going against Jones, but they also were still matched up against Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, perhaps the greatest one-two punch of skill-position players in the NFL.
Is the Patriots’ defense great? No. Are they good? Maybe. They’ve certainly shown flashes, and they tend to come up when it matters most.
Sunday against the Steelers, those times came up whenever the Steelers had scoring opportunities. They allowed just one touchdown and fared much better on third down than they have in the past.
Overall, the Patriots rank third in points allowed per game and 12th in total defense despite ranking 21st in third-down efficiency and 29th in red-zone efficiency.
“I feel like every year it’s something,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “We’ll never be just, ‘You’re a good defensive team. Nobody will say that to us. We don’t care. Whatever we are in points allowed, we know that’s what important. We know that’s what the game comes down to. Everyone wants to find stats that go against you to ask you about. That’s your job, to ask us about the stuff we don’t do well. If you just ask us the good stuff, I think readers would be pretty bored. It is what it is for us.”
It feels like a case of nitpicking to criticize the Patriots’ defense too heavily. It’s not always pretty, but they’ve shown improvement in their weakest areas, and this is a 6-1 football team, and one can’t lose sight of that.
Next on the Patriots’ docket to improve: pass rush. They hit Jones just once and didn’t record a sack. Pressuring the quarterback would put far less pressure on the Patriots’ secondary, but they were rushing just three defenders frequently against the Steelers.
One would think the Patriots’ pass rush would improve once they start playing more aggressively, but that’s impossible to know until they do.
The Patriots’ defense, given their talent, was supposed to dominate. That hasn’t been the case, but they’ve found a way to master the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy.
And to the fans: Maybe wait until the game is over to panic next week.
Thumbnail photo via Jason Bridge/USA TODAY Sports Images