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Mental toughness and resilience have the Patriots defense back on track against the Raiders

Related: Patriots had a simple goal against the Raiders: ‘Finish every play, every run’

Las Vegas Raiders v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

In all of 2019, the New England Patriots’ defense gave up just four touchdown passes to opposing wide receivers. In 2020, one game was enough to already reach that total: led by possibly the best quarterback in football right now, Russell Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks scored 35 points against New England’s vaunted defense in Week 2 — all of the scores coming via the air, with four of them having wideouts on the receiving end.

The Patriots simply had no answer against Wilson and company, and their defense was heading into its game against the Las Vegas Raiders’ fourth-ranked scoring offense looking to find some. It did.

While Las Vegas had some success moving the football both through the air and on the ground, New England’s defense made the plays when it mattered most. Be it because of three fumble recoveries, some timely pass breakups or a defensive touchdown, the unit thwarted the Raiders’ offensive aspirations. A team that had averaged 34 points in Weeks 1 and 2 was therefore held to 20 points, with the final seven coming in garbage time.

“Like every team, I think when you lose a game you want to get back out there and win,” defensive captain Devin McCourty said after New England’s 36-20 victory. “That’s something we talked about all week. We don’t really care about the moral victory or any of that from Seattle. We needed to get back out there and get a win. I think Bill [Belichick] said it after the game, it feels good at the end of the week when you end with a win.

“We’ll obviously dissect the film and break everything down on mistakes and try to get better from that, but it’s just a good feeling. That feeling getting back on a plane after Seattle, even though it was a hard fought game like that, it just doesn’t feel good. You don’t enjoy that. I think it was good to just get a win and, you know, it was a rough week last week with everything we went through as a team, and it felt good to go out there and get a win.”

New England’s defense did not just have to find a way to get back on track after a disappointing performance versus the Seahawks, the unit and the team as a whole also had to handle running back James White losing his father in a car crash on Sunday.

McCourty and his teammates, however, showed the necessary resilience to put themselves above the .500 mark again — even after the Raiders moved the ball comparatively well at times on Sunday. As linebacker Chase Winovich noted after the game, the team’s preparation and mental makeup allowed it to keep fighting through the adversity it faced during the week and on the field against a talented opponent.

“I think the coaches do a great job of making sure that we’re prepared for anything and if we got we got rattled off of one or two good series, then we aren’t the team I think that we are,” said the second-year defender. “I think we’re more mentally tough than that and it’s a matter of going out there and showing it. Today we did.”

New England’s defense keeping the Raiders in check also put the offense in a position to play the game on its own terms. Those were pretty straight forward: control the pace of the contest by efficiently running the football through the top-three running backs available after White’s absence. Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and J.J. Taylor combined to gain 209 of the team’s 253 rushing yards, and they too credited the defense with giving them opportunities to succeed.

“Las Vegas has a great team and our defense was out there playing hard, fighting for every down and every inch. I think we played good complementary football today,” said Michel.

Special teams captain Matthew Slater shared Michel’s thoughts on the complementary nature of the Patriots’ victory over the visiting Raiders.

“We don’t think we are a one-dimensional team,” said the veteran. “Whatever we’ve got to do to scratch and claw and eek out a win, we’ll do. And we had a number of guys step up today. It was great to see the backs perform the way that they did, the offensive line perform the way that they did, and certainly the defense and how they perform the way that they did. And that’s the way it’s going to be for us. We just have to find ways to win.

“Every game presents itself differently, the demands are different, what we need to do to win the game is different. And hopefully we are a team that will be able to rise up and meet the challenge week-in and week-out.”

New England certainly did just that against Las Vegas, with the defense in particular bouncing back nicely.