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Patriots defense looks to find fix for third-down woes of last few years

07.23.14 at 12:24 pm ET
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FOXBORO — For the past few seasons there has been one consistent issue with the Patriots defense — getting off the field on third down.

According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, dating back to the 2010 season there hasn’t been one year in which the Patriots finished higher than 20th in the league in third-down defense. Last year the unit got off the field 42.7 percent of the time, 25th in the league, so on a little more than half of the third-down plays, opponents were successful. 2010 was the worst season of all, as New England allowed opponents a success rate of 47.1 percent, dead last among all 32 defenses in the league.

This is one of the areas in which the defense as a whole knows it needs to get better as preparation for the 2014 season begins with training camp opening on Thursday.

“We have to get off the field, that’s huge,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “Some of the third-and-long situations we weren’t able to get off the field. I know third-and-long screens hurt us, too. Specifically that play and third and long as a whole, we need to do a better job. Obviously everything is working together, so coverage-rush, rush-coverage, everything works together. That’s just one area we definitely need to work on this year.”

A good amount of the conversions have come on screen plays, some even going for long yardage. Stopping the play comes from not just one specific group of players, but the entire defense.

“It’s just different things you can work on,” defensive back Devin McCourty said of how to stop the screen. “I think one of the greatest things here is we have coaches that find any and everything we can do to get better. I think one of the big things is getting to the ball. It’s a play you try and get the linemen up field and guys drop into coverage, so just effort and everything on that simple basis can help improve the screen game.”

A number of players who figure to play dominant roles this season were either injured or on different teams last year, but that doesn’t mean they won’t look at film to see what the New England defense had trouble with last year.

“You can’€™t focus so much on last year, because like you said, some of the people when we’re watching film weren’t even here last year,” McCourty said. “So it’s just trying to improve scheme things. What some of the guys did last year that are still on the team — how to view things, how to see it better, how to anticipate it better, so for third down it’s always the key.

“Every game and a lot of the time it comes down to your season on third down and a key situation. We’ll definitely watch that and try and improve and like [Ninkovich] was saying, we’ll look at different plays that happened to us. You always want to look at those things and see how you can get better. That started in the spring, trying to develop those things and look at them just so all the players can be aware of what hurt us last year and what we need to be ready for this year.”

The defensive unit added a few players, specifically Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the secondary, and will get some key contributors back who suffered season-ending injuries last season. This certainly will give the other players more assurance, especially on third down.

“We have some of guys back,” Ninkovich said. “Last year it was tough when we lost [Jerod] Mayo, Vince [Wilfork], Tommy [Kelly], those were some big blows. Having those guys next to you definitely gives you more confidence.”

Read More: Devin McCourty, Patriots, Rob Ninkovich,
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