Hannable: Change to Patriots defense was much-needed and could spark turnaround

Ryan Hannable
October 06, 2017 - 3:53 am

Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

TAMPA, Fla. — Having the worst defense overall and second-worst defense in points allowed after the first four weeks with the amount of talent the Patriots have, something needed to change. 

New England switched its defense up a bit Thursday night against the Buccaneers and it paid dividends as the unit had its best performance of the season in the 19-14 win. 

After all the communication problems the past few weeks, the secondary made things as simple as possible.

Cornerback Stephon Gilmore was matched up with Mike Evans all game and Malcolm Butler was matched up with DeSean Jackson all game. This eliminated switching and other factors which contributed to most of the defensive breakdowns in the prior weeks.

Gilmore said afterwards he was happy with the change, as being matched up 1-on-1 against a receiver the whole game gets the most out of him as a player.

“That is what gets the best out of me, when I am following a guy and studying a certain guy,” he said.

Added Gilmore: “I was happy for it, to get on a guy and follow him everywhere he go. I studied just him, so pretty much just knew every route. It was fun.”

Evans finished with five catches for 49 yards in what was Gilmore best performance of the entire season. It appeared the scheme change allowed both Gilmore and Butler to play more free and confident.

“We just told those two guys — Malcolm and Stephon, who I think are some of the better corners in the league — just told them you’ve got those guys and play ball,” safety Duron Harmon said. “That is what they did. For us to have the week we had, short week, everyone was talking about the secondary, this, that, now and the other, I really believe those guys came out here and competed at a high level tonight. It was good to watch and good to see.”

The other switch was having Dont’a Hightower return somewhat to his middle linebacker position. Prior to Thursday, in the two games he’s played in this season he's played as an edge rusher. Thursday, he spent a lot of time back in the middle of the defense, while still lining up on the edge on some plays as well.

“He’s run this defense for five years - being in the middle, having the dot, calling the plays, making adjustments,” Harmon said. “I think it was good to have him back out there, especially in the middle, to give us some familiarity. It just allowed us to play faster.”

Based on the way the defense performed, the adjustments worked and should stay in place for the foreseeable future.

It isn’t the first time something like this has taken place in the Patriots secondary, either.

Back in 2014 when the Patriots had Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, things didn’t get off to the greatest of starts, but just before the midpoint of the year, things changed for them, too. 

They got assignments at the beginning of the week. Revis would take one receiver, Browner the other, and it ended up by getting the Patriots a win in Super Bowl XLIX. 

Going into this season, the Gilmore-Butler duo was hyped as one of, if not the best cornerback tandem in football. Now, potentially getting the chance to play more free could get them back into that conversation. 

With that being said, the performance on Thursday wasn’t by any means perfect. 

The defense allowed Jameis Winston to pass for over 300 yards to become the first team in NFL history to allow five straight 300-yard passers in a single season, and it allowed the Buccaneers to come back in the fourth quarter after being down by nine points with 9:55 remaining. 

Tampa Bay had a chance to win the game on the final play, but Winston’s pass in the end zone fell incomplete. 

New England went from being 31st in the league in points allowed to 30th, so it obviously wasn’t a huge jump, but it was a step in the right direction and could get better after all the other teams play on Sunday. It will also get better with time, as the defense becomes more and more familiar with one another.

It is important to note all the new faces and remember Hightower missed the majority of the summer. The entire group hasn’t been on the field much together and is now finally showing the beginning stages of starting to gel, especially with their new assignments. 

The decisions to switch to having its cornerbacks matchup and have Hightower back in the middle could be what ultimately turns the defense around and into one of the better units in the league. 

The first four weeks won’t define the entire season.

“That is what we talked about all week, just use this week as a chance to get better,” Harmon said. “Learn from the mistakes we made last week and stop making as many mistakes and it is just something to build on. As soon as we came in, it was just we have to build on this. It still is not going to be good enough. We’re going to watch the film. We still made mistakes. We still didn’t tackle as good as we wanted to in certain situations. 

“We know we have to get better. We have to continue to get better. The season is still young. I mean, this is Game 5 of a 16-game season.”

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