Bill Belichick's postgame press conference had the coach using the word "better" some 21 times to describe what his team needed to both do and be after Sunday afternoon's ugly 33-30 loss to the Panthers at Gillette Stadium.
Less than 24 hours later, on his traditional day-after-game conference call with the New England media, the coach emphasized that the route to being "better" was a simple one, one paved with nothing more or less than "work."
"Well, collectively, coaching and playing, we just have to work harder to get things right," Belichick responded to a question specifically asking about communication issues in the New England secondary. "That's everybody. I don't think there's some magic wand here. We just have to work hard and get it right."
The pass defense is clearly one of the areas of major concern through a month of football. All the good things that Tom Brady and the high-powered Patriots passing attack are doing on a weekly basis are being matched or at times bested by the opponents' work against the New England secondary.
A critical focus on free agent cornerback newcomer Stephon Gilmore and the rest of the pass defense, the high number of times Brady is being hit and some praise for the pass rush fill out the highlights of Belichick's Monday morning conference call.
1. Gilmore's missed snap?:The Pro Bowl addition Gilmore, who's been dealing with a groin injury, has had his ups and downs through his first month in Foxborough. Certainly Sunday's action against the Panthers would represent the clear low point. A number of different times Gilmore seemed to be confused with his coverage responsibilities, running across the formation while Carolina receivers ran behind him uncovered for big plays and touchdowns.
Even with the poor play, it was noteworthy that Gilmore was not on the field for the first play on defense in the second half. An injury to Eric Rowe on that first snap of the third quarter would see Gilmore back on the field after one play. Rower did not return due to the groin issue and Gilmore ended up playing 62 of 63 defensive snaps in the loss.
It was no surprise that Belichick was asked if Gilmore opening up the second half on the sideline was a "performance-based decision?"
"Yeah, well, we rotate a lot of people through the course of the game; linebackers, defensive linemen, defensive backs, so we play a lot of people every week," Belichick responded.
Sticking with the topic, the reporter wondered if Gilmore is being used "the best possible way for his skill set" early in his time in New England.
"We do what we think is best to help the team win. That's what we try to do. We try to win games," Belichick said.
The reporter continued the line of questioning by asking if Gilmore has "come as advertised?"
"I don't understand the question," Belichick responded.
"Has he been the player that you thought he was when you signed him in free agency?" the reporter clarified of the $65 million addition.
"I mean, look, I think everybody on our team has room for improvement; coaches, players, all of us, so you can put everybody into that group," Belichick responded, staying general in his answer with the theme of the day. "We all need to work harder. We all need to do a better job."
2. Brady getting hit a lot in a "contact sport": Brady has put up huge offensive numbers to open his 18th NFL season. The 40-year-old quarterback leads the NFL's No. 1 offense and No. 1 passing attack. He has 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating is 116.6.
He's done it all despite the fact that he's been sacked 13 times in four games.
The number of times that Brady has been hit – on pace for 100-plus hits over the season according to one reporter's question for Belichick – is less than ideal for any passer, certainly one trying to defy Father Time.
So when that reporter asked Belichick if the hits on Brady were "concerning," it was interesting that Belichick seemed to downplay the issue.
"Well, we always try to, obviously, protect the quarterback, create holes in the running game and do all of the things that we try to do to move the ball and be successful. So, that's what we'll continue to do," Belichick said. "It's a contact sport. Guys are going to get hit out on the football field. I mean, I think that's reality. We do the best we can to try and win games. That's what we're going to try and do. I'm not really sure what you're suggesting."
Put on the spot, the reporter simply said he was wondering if the was a way to "minimize" the hits that Brady takes?
"We're not going to hand the ball off 70 times per game. Is that what you think we should do? Run 70 runs a game?" Belichick responded, leaving the conference call to go off in different direction.
3. Pass rush vs. Carolina "was consistent": Few would argue that the back end of Patriots defense is the biggest area of concern right now. But, coaches often emphasize that all pass defense comes with the pass coverage working in concert with the pass rush.
New England had just two sacks and four QB hits on Newton on Sunday, as the quarterback piled up his 316 yards passing with three different players notching receptions of 25 yards or longer.
Given the overall struggles of the pass defense, it was mildly surprising to hear Belichick come to the defense of his pass rush.
"Well, I thought – really throughout the game – I thought we were OK rushing the quarterback," Belichick said. "We hit him a couple of times but he got the ball off, but I think the rush was competitive. I mean, obviously, it could be better. I'm not saying it was great, but there were times we beat blockers and got to the quarterback, got close to the quarterback, and a couple of times he got rid of the ball. It wasn't the scrambles really that were an issue. It was more, I'd say, the designed runs that we need to defend better as far as the quarterback goes. I thought [the pass rush] was consistent."