New England's defense has made its share of big plays so far in 2016 – linebacker/co-captain Dont'a Hightower's safety-causing tackles in each of the past two weeks are a prime example.
However, the Patriots have had considerable difficulty in at least one crucial category this season: third downs. New England ranks a dismal 27th in the league at the moment when it comes to third-down efficiency.
"We do really good on first and second downs and then third downs have been a little bit of trouble for us," Hightower acknowledged. "We've worked on it really hard this week. We'll have another shot at it today [in practice], so, hopefully we'll be able to get that corrected before the end of the season.
"One of the biggest things we want to do on defense is to try to get off the field on third down. To be able to give the offense, Tom [Brady], give those guys the ball. There's always room for improvement. But we're still learning, still working, definitely moving in the right direction. We have a few things that we have to pick up on and I think that'll make us a lot better."
"I'd be lying if I said that wasn't one thing we've talked about over and over again, that we need to get better at and we need to focus on it," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty admitted this week. "Third-down is all about matchups. You've got to win individual matchups whether it's in the pass rush, whether it's in coverage, you've got to go out there and somebody has to make a play to get off the field.
"It's something that we've talked about and we've got to continue to improve on and get better at. But it's a week-by-week [process]. We've played well at times but obviously overall we haven't. It's something we know we have to work on if we want to try and continue that success, but no matter what we know we've got to try to find a way to win within the game."
The Patriots aren't consistently creating turnovers compared to other teams this season, which is another factor to consider.
"Turnovers are one thing," Hightower continued, "but third down is third down. That's something that's going to come up unless you're forcing turnovers first and second down, which, if it was that easy, I think everybody would do it.
"Ultimately, it's going to have to come down to us winning on third down as well. We're going to have to win on third down. We're going to have to win in the red area. Those are key components to winning a game. Those are the things we're going to have to tighten up on."
In Hightower's case, he won a significant number of individual battles this past Sunday against Cincinnati. His 13 total tackles led the club that afternoon, and his sack in the end zone for the safety helped sparked New England's comeback win.
For his efforts, Hightower was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week – the first such honor of his career and first for the Patriots since Week 2 the 2014 season (DE Chandler Jones).
"It means a lot," Hightower said of the award. "Definitely appreciate the recognition, but I think we all know that one guy doesn't make the team, especially on defense. Definitely have a lot of help with those other guys that help. I was just the only one who was able to get singled out. But I appreciate it."
The Brothers Gronk
Fullback Glenn Gronkowski is back on the Patriots practice squad, and his older brother, Rob, is happy to have him as a colleague once again. The younger Gronk was originally brought in on October 1, but was let go 11 days later in what was more likely a procedural move by the team than an indictment on the player's skills. During his brief hiatus, Glenn was staying with Rob, the older brother revealed, so, it seemed like a return engagement was somewhat expected.
"I'm definitely glad to have him back," the tight end/co-captain remarked Thursday. He added that "it's great" to be teammates on the practice field with his youngest sibling.
"Oh yeah, growing up, we played everything together – basketball, backyard baseball, mini sticks, whatever it is, you name it. We never played on a team together, but you name anything that you can do as a kid with your brother growing up in the backyard, and we've done it.
Respect for Pittsburgh
Count Julian Edelman among Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown's many admirers. Even though he doesn't face Brown on the field, Edelman studies what Brown does to become a better pass catcher for the Patriots.
"[Brown]'s a phenomenal receiver," Edelman stated. "Smooth, great routes, great hands, savviness. He's definitely a player that you study. A lot of respect for him."
The veteran was equally effusive of the city where Brown plays and the Patriots will visit this weekend.
"Pittsburgh's a hard-nosed town. The Steel City. Going to school in the Midwest [at Kent State], it's two hours from where I went to school, you realize they love football in that area – professional football, college football, they have great high school football. It's a football area. There's going to be some electricity there. These are the games you get excited for… I'm not going to say it doesn't get to you sometimes. Sometimes [the crowd's] roaring, but we prepare very hard for those situations."
Matthew vs. Matthew
In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, which laid waste to much of the Caribbean and southeastern U.S., special teams co-captain Matthew Slater has organized an effort (the brainchild of his wife, he admitted) to raise funds for victims of the recent storm.
"My wife and I will be hosting an event October 25, next Tuesday," Slater divulged. "We have family in the Carolinas, and living up here in the Boston area, we've met a lot of people that have ties to Haiti. Hurricane Matthew has obviously had a devastating effect on a lot of people so we wanted to do something that would provide some relief efforts for the people affected by this."
Slater's event will take place from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Splitsville in Patriot Place, the shopping complex adjacent to Gillette Stadium. Several of Slater's Patriots teammates will attend, he noted, and there will be a number of auction items on which the public can bid.
"It'll be a great time, but most importantly, every penny we raise will go directly to an organization called 'Samaritan's Purse,'" added Slater. "That's already on the ground in the Carolinas and in Haiti. They do tremendous work. It's an organization I've had a long-standing relationship with."
The Patriots enjoyed perfect attendance at practice Thursday, with the exception of the three members of the PUP (physically unable to perform list). This is the first week of the season that RB Dion Lewis (left knee), RT Sebastian Vollmer, and guard Tre' Jackson are eligible to resume practicing, but so far, there's been no sign of them. The Patriots have several weeks now to decide whether and when to begin practicing each of these players.