Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer 349d

Challenge for Patriots' defense: Avoid the knockout punch

TAMPA, Fla. -- When it comes to the issues that have contributed to the New England Patriots' disappointing 2-2 start, a trip inside the boxing ring best explains it.

Sometimes a fight is lost by a series of jabs, hooks and strategic maneuvering that wears an opponent down. Other times, it can be as simple as one knockout punch providing a stunning blow that is too much to recover from.

The Patriots so obviously fall into the latter category that it doesn’t take an advanced course at Belichick University to figure it out. Until they stop giving up big plays on defense, they will continue to live on the edge. Every other deficiency that has cropped up -- pass protection, pass rush, running game, etc. -- is much further down the list because those facets have all shown signs of improvement at various points.

But the big plays ...

"This is even new to me as far as the way we are playing," said safety Devin McCourty, a team captain who has been with the club since 2010. "We've played bad. The most important stat to us is points, and we're [second to] last. Our offense has scored more than enough points to win games. ... Defensively, we understand we have to step up and do our part."

Big plays are football's version of the knockout punch, and the Patriots have given up an astounding 18 completions of 20 yards or more at the quarter mark of the season. That puts them on a pace for 72 after giving up just 44 such plays in 2016.

Those struggles don't include a 58-yard run by Chiefs rookie Kareem Hunt and a 21-yard touchdown run by Charcandrick West, both in the season-opening loss, which also fall into the big-plays-allowed category.

A lot of the positives on defense are being wiped out by the big play. This explains how the Patriots are 1-2 this season in games in which have a positive turnover differential, which is extremely rare. Consider: The Patriots have a regular-season record of 138-15 under Bill Belichick (2000-present) when they have a positive turnover differential.

Sunday marked the first time since 2002 that the Patriots lost at home when forcing two or more turnovers and not turning the ball over themselves.

As for why the Patriots are giving up big plays, the cogent analysis of ESPN's Louis Riddick on SportsCenter summed it up: "This is a team that likes to play a lot of man-to-man coverage because they have some quality players that they think can match up with just about any team in the NFL. They have guys who are tall, long, strong, shorter, quicker, aggressive and more finesse-type players.

"The problem is a lot of teams have really tried to condense their formations, run a lot of stack and bunch formations, and a lot of crossers, a lot of pick releases, and these guys just aren't communicating. When you see late in the down, before the ball is snapped, guys running around and kind of looking at each other, there's a problem. In the critical moments, when they've given up big plays, it's always been because somebody turns somebody loose. That can be corrected. It's not a physical issue. It's a communication issue."

It would be one thing if the Patriots were simply losing competitive situations, at which point credit goes to the opposition (think Julio Jones' ridiculous sideline catch in Super Bowl LI). But too often, the Patriots aren't giving themselves a chance to make a play because of pre-snap communication issues, which result in the secondary playing indecisively and being badly out of position.

"The only time you could see it was last week against Carolina; they obviously turned some guys loose. That's not a normal Patriot defense," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter, whose team hosts New England on Thursday night.

"The Panthers did a really nice job with their scheme. They created a lot of bunches and stack sets. Whatever it was that was the issue, you just don't see a Patriots defense turn guys loose. It wasn't that they necessarily beat a guy in one-on-one coverage, they just turned some guys loose. You just don't see that very much. That is a communication thing, not a lack of talent. I'm 100 percent confident that we will not be so fortunate this week. That will not happen against us."

It did happen at times in the Patriots' other three games, just to a lesser degree. It's why McCourty, the leader of the secondary, said he feels that group -- which includes cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones, along with safeties Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon and Jordan Richards -- is letting the team down.

One could feel McCourty's frustration rising, because the struggle -- giving up big plays -- is so obvious to decipher. If not for the big plays, the Patriots would probably be 4-0.

"It's the NFL. It's simple. You either get it better, or you have to look for a new job," he said. "That's part of being a good football team and good players; when it's time to go play and turn what you've practiced and watched into game reality. We've got to go do that. We have a bunch of hard-working guys, but it's time to show up, make plays and play better."

McCourty believes the Patriots can do it, but it's clear he's tired of talking about it.

"I think everything in football is correctable, especially if you have a group that you feel you have some good football players, and we have a talented group," he said. "It's up to us to correct it. I think we're on the right path, but like I always say, you don't know until you go out and do it in the game."

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