It did not take long for the New England Patriots’ defense to make its presence felt during the team’s Week 8 game against the Cleveland Browns. After forcing a three-and-out on its first series, the unit scored the contest’s first touchdown on the very next drive when linebacker Dont’a Hightower recovered a fumble and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown. It was a sign of things to come, as the Patriots were far from done taking the ball away.
On the very next play from scrimmage, Browns running back Nick Chubb broke free for a 44-yard gain on the ground. When he was tackled from behind by a chasing Jonathan Jones, however, he lost the football in the rainy conditions which allowed Devin McCourty to fall on it at the New England 4-yard line for a recovery and the second straight play with a defensive turnover. And the Patriots were just getting started.
While the offense failed to Chubb’s fumble into points, the unit was back on the field again just one play after punting the football away: Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield attempted a shovel pass intended for wide receiver Jarvis Landry, but the football wound up in the arms of defensive tackle Lawrence Guy. The veteran defender returned the football five yards, to set up another Patriots touchdown that would give the club a 17-0 lead.
In just four minutes of game time, New England’s defense had registered three takeaways that ultimately added 14 points to the scoreboard — something head coach Bill Belichick recognized as vital to his team’s 27-13 victory when speaking about the defensive performance during his postgame press conference: “The turnovers and our ability to capitalize on them were really good, and kind of the difference, really.”
Belichick, who celebrated his 300th career win as a head coach against his ex-club, was not the only one to praise the Patriots defense. Quarterback Tom Brady also spoke highly about the group following New England’s eighth game of the season: “They’re amazing, and what they’re doing — getting the ball off the other team. They have good players at every level, and they put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, put a lot of pressure on running backs.”
“I know that offense has a lot of good skill players, but it’s great to see them come out and start fast and get ahead,” added the future Hall of Famer. While Brady and the rest of the offense had another inconsistent performance on the day, the defense showed why it was still the premier unit in all of football despite having a hard time containing the Browns’ running game. However, the ability to create timely turnovers more than made up for it.
“Every time that we’re able to get the ball and take it away form the offense and give the ball to our offense it’s a benefit for us — even better when we’re getting to score, or getting to change field position,” said the aforementioned Dont’a Hightower after the game. “It definitely helped us a few times today, especially on the Chubb run. He made a really good run, broke some tackles, but the turnover got us out of there.”
“It helps us a lot, and it’s obviously something that we like and proud ourselves on, and something that we’ll continue to do,” added the 29-year-old. Fellow defensive captain Devin McCourty, meanwhile, sang a similar tune when speaking about the importance of taking the football away from the opposing offense: “That’s something that we’re always talking about: turnover ratio. Us turning the ball over, our offense protecting the ball.”
As McCourty pointed out, it is rare to win the turnover battle but actually lose the game afterwards. New England certainly found this out on Sunday against Cleveland: the team’s three takeaways were a big factor during the 14-point victory, not just because they provided the cushion that would ultimately be the difference between the two clubs; it also put pressure on Cleveland to dig itself out of a hole on the road.
“That’s something that we’re always thinking about: we want to attack the football and especially as a team get off to a good start, offensively and defensively.” said McCourty. “Being able to going out there early in a game and make our plays, puts us in the driver’s seat a little bit and puts a lot of pressure on our opponent. That’s something that we need to continue to work at and try to get this advantage each week.”