Before their Week 10 bye, the New England Patriots played their worst defensive game of the season: the team surrendered 37 points against the Baltimore Ravens, with 30 coming on defense, and struggled to slow down its opponent’s potent rushing attack. But even though the Patriots had two weeks to right the ship again leading into Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles, they came out slowly in the first quarter.
On the very first play from scrimmage, Philadelphia gained 49 yards on a pass interference call against cornerback Jason McCourty. Four plays later, the home team was up 3-0. Just two possessions later, the Eagles were able to add seven more points to their total after driving 95 yards in 16 plays and taking more than nine minutes off the clock — the longest regular season drive surrendered by New England in eight years.
“The screen pass on the second drive was a big play for them. Then they were able to do a good job of just getting first downs on first or second down, or getting eight yards,” said safety Devin McCourty after the game about the Eagles’ success early on during the contest. But after falling behind 10-0 and giving up 147 yards and nine first downs over two possessions, McCourty and company were able to flip a switch.
Over the remaining 42 minutes of game time, New England’s defense looked like the one that dominated its opponents between opening day and Week 8 — not like the one that had trouble getting off the field against Baltimore just two weeks earlier. The Eagles were allowed only 14 more first downs over their remaining 10 possessions, turned the football over twice, and were unable to put any more points on the scoreboard while losing 17-10.
“Slowing them down on first down, not giving up the six, seven, eight yards and then letting them stay in rhythm,” said McCourty about the Patriots’ defensive recipe after the long touchdown drive. “I thought once we were able to get them kind of off target of their yards on first and second down, we were able to get in our third-down package. Our rush did a great job of getting to [Carson] Wentz and making it tough.”
“Then it comes down to sometimes just making plays on the ball in the secondary on third down. I thought guys did a good job of covering tonight and making it tough. Even some of the completions they had, [Zach] Ertz made some good catches. [Nelson] Agholor had a catch on [Jamie Collins Sr.] where he was right on him. Even a touchdown could’ve gone either way on the end zone reception,” added McCourty. “We did a good job of competing.”
“In the first half, the thing that kind of killed us was maybe giving up five yards on the first carry or me getting a pass interference deep down the field. Those type of plays hurt us,” added fellow defensive back Jason McCourty. “I think in the second half, we did a better job at putting them 2 and 10 situations, 2 and 8, and then getting them to third down to where we were able to run some things that we do in our third-down package.”
The game represented a turnaround after a game in Baltimore during which the defense was inconsistent at best. One of the biggest aspects in getting the unit back to playing winning football was the aforementioned run defense: after surrendering 213 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries for an average of 5.6 yards per carry against the Ravens, the Patriots held the Eagles to just 81 yards on 21 rushing attempts and a 3.9-yard average.
“It felt great because we had this bye week to do our review and correct mistakes that we had early in the season,” said defensive tackle Danny Shelton when speaking about the improvements the unit made over the last two weeks. “I feel like our guys did a great job with staying focused. We had to step it up and use better technique, get after the ball and make more plays. I feel like we’re on the right track right now.”
“It’s all about preparation. It’s about the practice week of getting to our opponent, getting ready to stop them, executing our game plan,” added McCourty. “I think as long as we understand that’s the mentality we have to have each week, we’ll have a shot to come out here and play good defense. But if we get off-target, we know it’s not too far from looking how we looked the last time we were out here. So it’s a fine line of playing good defense.”
Against the Eagles, if only for two-and-a-half quarters, the Patriots certainly did play good defense — both against the run, and also against the pass. This, in turn, helped the team leave Philadelphia with a victory even on a day on which the offense struggled to get into a rhythm. As McCourty pointed out during his postgame press conference, however, the game is a complementary one that is won if all three phases work well alongside each other.
“Each time we take the field, whether [the offense is] scoring a lot or not, we want to have that mentality to just complement each other,” he said. “It’s big if we can get a stop and switch the field position. Then [Julian Edelman] threw the touchdown to go and get a big score and two-point conversion. If we’re struggling on defense, they go out and have a good drive. Even if it’s three points, they let us get on the sideline and figure things out.”
“That’s the biggest thing, to just make sure we always complement each other,” McCourty added. So far this season and again on Sunday, the defense was carrying the load. If it continues to play like it did outside of the game against Baltimore, however, the Patriots should still be in good shape moving forward even while they are trying to figure out their identity on the other side of the ball.