The struggles for the Patriots offense have external voices wondering about the defense's mindset heading into Sunday's road showdown with the Raiders in Las Vegas.
It's human nature to think that a Patriots defense, which is a respectable 13th in expected points added and 12th in DVOA, would start pointing fingers at the offense; hey, can we get a little help here? The Pats assistant coaches acknowledged earlier this week that stuff like that happens, but defensive play-caller Steve Belichick had a good perspective on how the coaches respond to that line of thinking.
"I was kind of brought up by my dad and my grandpa," Belichick said. "Like, 'Get your [expletive] together yourself.' Like, don't be worried about the rest of the people in the room. If you just worry about yourself and do what you need to do and lead people in the way of doing what you need to do better and stuff like that."
"There's always corrections that you can improve on if you're hard on yourself and you have a standard to yourself."
Although their side of the ball isn't the team's biggest problem, the Patriots defense is focusing on what it can correct about themselves, and that's forcing more turnovers than the two takeaways they have through five games. Statistically, they're an above-average defense, but it's very uncharacteristic of a Belichick defense to force so few turnovers.
Last season, the Patriots were tied for the second-most takeaways in the NFL with 30 and had the same number the year before, which was tied for the third-most in the NFL. In 2022, the Pats also scored a league-high seven defensive touchdowns, while the team was a +77 in points off turnovers differential. This season, New England is a -45 in the points off turnovers stat, mostly because opponents have scored four defensive touchdowns against the Patriots.
The Patriots defense also set the offense up for 11 drives on the opponent's side of the field by forcing turnovers, resulting in three offensive touchdowns and four field goals last season. The Pats are tied for the fewest such drives this season with just one (Week 1 vs. Eagles).
As much as it's primarily on the offense to score more points, the defense could make life easier on the offense by putting Mac Jones and company on more short fields. That's not to point fingers at a defense performing relatively well, but the bottom line is that Belichick built this roster to play complimentary football with the defense feeding the offense.
Patriots safeties Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers lamented about missed opportunities to create turnovers in the first five weeks. Speaking to Patriots.com, Dugger said he should've had a takeaway on four specific plays, including a close call last week when the refs ruled he didn't catch a low pass that would've been an interception.
As a follow-up, I asked Dugger if he felt like playing further from the line of scrimmage has contributed to fewer turnovers for the Pats safety. In 2022, Dugger had four takeaways with three defensive touchdowns. This season, Dugger has played significantly more snaps at free safety as the defense tries to replace franchise icon Devin McCourty, but Dugger didn't believe that a slightly different role was the cause for making fewer plays on the ball.
Peppers also echoed that there were big plays to be made that the Patriots narrowly missed, adding that the turnovers will come "in bunches" once they get their hands on a few.
"We haven't gotten enough of them. But we don't want guys to start forcing the issue then we start lacking in other areas. Turnovers usually come in bunches. Once they start coming, it'll be a repeating thing," Peppers said. "You can't abandon the scheme. Go try to make a play, and then they hit a play where you are supposed to be. We all know we need to generate more turnovers. That's a big deal in winning and losing in this league."
"There have definitely been opportunities. Off the top of my head, the pick where I just broke it up against the Eagles, punched the ball out against Breece Hall, but they recovered it in their own territory. Should've had a tip [pass] last week," Peppers said. "I think [Kyle] Dugger had a pick during the game, but they got on the ball and did a good job so that we couldn't challenge it. There's definitely been some opportunities out there."
Along with the two safeties, the Patriots also re-acquired CB J.C. Jackson last week, hoping that "Mr. INT" will contribute to the pile of turnovers that are hopefully coming for this defense soon. Jackson played half the defensive snaps (36) in his first game back with the team since leaving in free agency following the 2021 season, and his teammates are happy to have him back.
"To have [Jackson] back has been good. Just to have him in the building. He's happy to be back, and we are happy to have him back," cornerback Jonathan Jones said with a big smile.
"Just being opportunistic. Not pushing, not being too aggressive. A lot of times, that is when you give up plays that you don't want to give up. But just taking advantage of those opportunities and making those plays when they are available," Jones added about forcing more turnovers.
Following two unprecedented blowout losses, the Patriots are searching for ways to turn the tide in all phases of their football team. Although most of the attention is understandably on the offense's struggles, the defense is still working to improve. When you compare a 13th-ranked defense to a 32nd-ranked offense in EPA, it's natural to put the losses on the offense. But all 53 players and the entire coaching staff is pulling on the rope a little harder.
The Patriots defense is mostly holding up its end of the bargain, but the next step is making more game-changing plays by forcing turnovers starting this Sunday against the Raiders.