Earlier this season, the Patriots were having trouble making big plays on defense. Turnovers were scarce and pressure on opposing quarterbacks almost non-existent.
Since the bye week at mid-season, however, a much different story has unfolded. In the second half of 2016, New England's defense has been blossomed into an aggressive, playmaking unit that is stingy in the points-scored department.
Perhaps the slow start was a function of several new players – DE Chris Long, LB Kyle Van Noy, CB Eric Rowe, rookie LB Elandon Roberts, for example – having to integrate and learn to work with the established players, particularly after the mid-season trade of LB Jamie Collins to Cleveland.
Nowadays, it seems that the entire defense is more comfortable as a whole and with one another as individuals. The results have been impressive, as linebacker/co-captain Dont'a Hightower pointed out Thursday.
"Turnovers have been big," Hightower said. "We've had a lot of progress with that. We have guys getting to the ball. We've had plays where the ball has been out and it's been late. Lately, we've been able to take chances and be able to make plays with that. Guys do a good job of that."
Those "chances" are not to be interpreted as improvising, Hightower explained, but rather a designed aggressiveness that Patriots defenders are allowed to unleash in certain situations. New England has called a lot more corner blitzes of late, for instance, which can only happen when there's safety help nearby to pick up the abandoned receiver.
Hightower also made it clear that he isn't happy with what he believes was the unfair criticism he and his teammates faced earlier this season.
"We knew what we had [on defense] and stats speak for [themselves]," he proclaimed. "[To call us a] work in progress is one thing, but for people to say that our defense was [expletive] or not good, that's another thing. Progress, us making progress, absolutely we made a lot of progress throughout the year and that's something that we've done in the past couple of years and we have to continue to do that, especially after Thanksgiving.
"The guys are just growing. We're growing as a defense," added Hightower. "We want to be able to get the ball and cause turnovers. Whenever we're able to do that, we're able to get off the field three-and-out, we're able to get the ball back to Tom [Brady]. Whenever we can lead in time of possession and getting off the field on third down, we feel like we're able to win and play very well.
"Our job is to keep the offense from scoring, so any time you can do that, and do it well, we want to continue to build on that down the stretch. That would be big for us. If we can do this throughout [the playoffs], we'll be pretty good on defense."
From a personal standpoint, the veteran linebacker has been dealing with a nagging knee injury recently. His practice time has been limited and he was held out entirely from the Jets game last week. Whether or not he suits up for the regular season finale in Miami this weekend remains to be seen. However, Hightower sounded like he'll be ready to go for sure once the playoffs arrive.
"It's football season, man. It's football until the fat lady sings," he smiled.
Quarterback Tom Brady (right thigh) and running back Dion Lewis (illness) were back in uniform on the practice field Thursday. Both men were held out of Wednesday's action.
Meanwhile, discouraging news for rookie wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell (right knee), who's now missed his second consecutive practice. Mitchell has been an increasing contributor in the Patriots' offense, particularly since the mid-season bye week. Having now missed two days of work on the field this week, his status for Sunday's regular season finale in Miami is in jeopardy.
Mitchell appeared to sustain his injury midway through the third quarter against the New York Jets last weekend, when he was tackled to the turf after making his final catch of the afternoon.
Rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones ((knee), who was limited in Wednesday's practice, also did not suit up, nor did veteran wide receiver Danny Amendola (right ankle). He's been sidelined since suffering his injury against the L.A. Rams in Week 13. However, Amendola made a cameo in the locker room after practice. He walked to and from his locker in what looked like a normal gait and without any medical implements to assist him.
Floyd playing catch-up
With Amendola almost certainly out for Miami and Mitchell looking more and more so, New England may need to rely on newcomer Michael Floyd to support the passing attack this weekend. One reporter asked Floyd today if that makes him nervous.
"It's not my first time playing," he chuckled. "There won't be any nerves. I got the taste of how it feels [in this offense] last game."
The 27-year-old veteran, claimed off waivers earlier this month, caught one of the three balls thrown his way in his Patriots debut. In the interim, he's been cramming to learn New England's historically complex offense. Floyd's experience at the University of Notre Dame, where former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis once coached him, has helped jog his memory, but only marginally.
"That was some years ago… A lot of the formations are the same, but the terminology is a lot different," said Floyd. "I believe football comes easy for me, but this is all new for me. It's obviously a lot of studying, a lot of film work, meetings after practice. I'm just keeping my head in the book. In the film room, working with some of my teammates, guys who know the offense in and out. I can count on them anytime I have a question."