Patriots' defense -- yes, the defense -- leads way in ugly victory

TAMPA, Fla. -- Here’s a storyline no one saw coming: The New England Patriots' defense led the way in an ugly 19-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night. That’s right, the defense.

Much maligned, and with good reason, the unit answered its critics on a penalty-flag-filled night that was anything but a good advertisement for quality NFL play.

The Patriots’ D might consider sending thank-you notes to inaccurate Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (how many wide-open receivers can you miss?) and erratic kicker Nick Folk (it wouldn’t be a surprise if the pink slip was waiting for him in his locker after the game).

Nonetheless, they'll take the win because the defense was markedly better than the way the Patriots had played in the first four weeks of the season. It is a performance from which they can build as they look ahead to their next game, Oct. 15 at the New York Jets.

Asked what the defense did better, coach Bill Belichick didn't hesitate when he said, "Pretty much everything. You got a chance to win giving up 14 points. We couldn't score much, but it was one of those games you got to do what you do to win."

The big plays, which have been New England's biggest problem, were limited (Winston helped, of course). Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, coming off a disastrous game in Week 4, matched up mostly against receiver Mike Evans and held him in check (five catches for 49 yards).

After the game, Gilmore said, "I think that's when you get the best out of me, when I'm following a guy and studying that guy. … I was out to prove something."

With Gilmore on Evans, that meant fellow cornerback Malcolm Butler checked DeSean Jackson. The overall coverage was tighter. The communication was better. And there was more energy.

"You can build off this as a defense," said safety Devin McCourty, one of the team's captains. "You can't build when you're cutting guys loose, so today was obviously a step in the right way."

Of Gilmore and Butler matching up against Evans and Jackson, McCourty said, "Those aren't two easy guys to cover. I think that really helped settle the game plan down, knowing we have Steph on Evans and Malc on Jackson, and we know those two guys love that. They love to go out and compete, and be out there on islands one-on-one against guys. That helps the defense when we know those two guys are good."

It was the turnaround the defense needed after it struggled against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

"You take adversity and it helps you bond as a team," McCourty said. "We had to come together, we had to stick together through a rough Sunday and on a short week when we couldn't practice hard and run around. We had to talk to each other, communicate through walk-throughs and trust each other. I thought that's what helped us -- depending on each other."

Still, it was far from perfect overall, as evidenced by two bone-headed penalties for roughing the passer at the end of the second quarter that inexcusably gave the Buccaneers a chance at a 56-yard field goal. But Folk missed that one, and then was wide left on attempts of 49 and 31 yards in the fourth quarter.

The final miss bailed out the defense, which was tiring into the fourth quarter.

Still, if not for the D, the Patriots wouldn’t be a 3-2 team. While quarterback Tom Brady and the offense moved the ball and had control of the game, they never had control of the scoreboard because of an inability to finish drives. That’s where playing without tight end Rob Gronkowski (thigh) hurt them most.

For the first time this season, the Patriots needed the defense to bail them out, and the defense came through.

Just barely.