FOXBOROUGH — When the Baltimore Ravens came back from 13-0 first-quarter and 30-21 fourth-quarter deficits against the Patriots last September, they did it largely with big plays.
Lots of big plays.
As quarterback Joe Flacco completed nearly 72 percent of his passes that night, 252 of his 382 yards came on just nine plays — and seven of those nine were touchdown passes or were key parts of scoring drives in the Ravens’ last-second 31-30 win.
There was a lot to forget about the defensive performance of the Patriots in 2012, particularly the number of 20-plus-yard passing plays the unit surrendered over the first five or six games.
“It was an awful lot at the beginning of the year. It was a torrid pace,” coach Bill Belichick said ruefully on Friday.
Indeed, it was. Over their first five games last year, New England surrendered 27 passes of 20 yards or more, “chunk plays” that far more often than not were part of scoring drives.
But through the first five games this season, the Patriots have had a marked decline in that category: They’ve allowed 16 such plays, and far fewer have been as damaging as so many were in 2012.
There likely isn’t one particular reason why they’ve seen an improvement, and to ask Belichick and the players involved, there are several.
“Those numbers decreased, whether part of that was Devin [McCourty] moving to safety, better overall defense, better communication, I don’t know,” Belichick said. “But the first half of last year, you could compare that to anything and say it was a lot — any year, any team, any other comparable period — I would say that would be a lot.”
Gathering half-season numbers is difficult, but Belichick is right about comparing New England’s numbers over a span of time. His team wound up allowing a league-worst 74 pass plays of 20 or more yards last season.
Since 1995, that is the second-highest number allowed, behind only the 79 given up by the 2011 Patriots.
As bad as things were against Baltimore that Sunday night, they were nearly as bad in Week 6 in Seattle, when the Patriots surrendered six more costly chunk plays in a late-game loss.
During that game, however, was when one of the first changes came about that likely has led to the recent run of improved performance: McCourty was moved to safety, and it has become permanent.
Steve Gregory was on the shelf at the time with a hip injury, and Patrick Chung suffered a shoulder injury during the game against the Seahawks. That left the Patriots with little choice but to slide McCourty to safety alongside then-rookie Tavon Wilson.
Four weeks later, Aqib Talib, whom the Patriots had acquired in a trade with the Buccaneers, was able to play in his first game after completing a four-game league suspension.
With Talib in the fold, New England put him at left cornerback, Alfonzo Dennard at right, kicked Kyle Arrington inside to the slot position, and paired a once-again-healthy Gregory with McCourty for most of the remainder of the season.
Nearly 11 months later, that quintet is still in place.
Gregory believes that experience is playing a big role in the decline of chunk plays.
“Just the continuity that we have back there, familiar faces, being able to play with guys, having those experiences — I’m a firm believer that it’s priceless having those game experiences with a guy, lining up next to a guy and having multiple experiences with him through games in situations that can only come up in a game,” he said.
It wasn’t just the sheer number of chunk plays the Patriots gave up through the first five games last season that was alarming — it was how many of them led to points.
Of the 27 20-plus-yard plays allowed, 18 of them — two-thirds — were touchdown passes or were part of TD drives, and two others were part of drives that ended with field goals.
Contrast that to this season: Of the 16 chunk passes allowed, only four, or 25 percent, have been touchdowns or part of TD drives, and two others were part of field goal drives.
“During the game you don’t think about it,” McCourty said of how costly big plays can become. “You go right on to the next play because if it’s not a touchdown you still think, ‘We can get a turnover, we can get a stop,’ so you don’t think about it, but we know it hurts us after the game.
“You watch and see those drives led to points so you try to stop them, but during the game you go right to trying to get a stop the next play.”
Allowing fewer big plays has meant teams have had to work harder to get points against the Patriots: Last year, opponents averaged 7.75 plays per scoring drive; this year, that number is 9.54, which is stingiest in the league. The defense has given up just 63 points over the first five games.
Like Gregory, McCourty pointed to increased familiarity among players in the secondary as a reason for the improvement, as well as a renewed focus on keeping such plays to a minimum: knowing how opponents can get them, and what New England has to do to take them away.
Pass rush helps, of course. If teammates on the front line can get to the quarterback, not to sack him necessarily but force him into making a throw he wasn’t ready to make or chase him out of the pocket, the secondary won’t have to cover as long. Or if the quarterback has to hesitate, that can work to the advantage of the corners and safeties, as well.
“Pass rush and coverage go hand in hand. If we’re not covering and they’re getting pressure, it doesn’t matter, the ball will come out fast,” McCourty said. “But if we’re covering guys and [quarterbacks] have to hold the ball, our pass rush will get home, so the biggest thing is working together. If they’re getting there quick, we have to get on the receivers faster, so that’s something that’s been pretty good for us this year, just understanding that.”
Sunday’s game will pose a big challenge for the Patriots in terms of continuing their success in limiting big pass plays. The Saints come into Gillette Stadium with 23 completions of 20 or more yards, third most in the NFL (New England has just 14, tied for 22d).
The results are there so far for the Patriots’ defense, and it will be looking to keep it going against New Orleans.
“That’s always our goal, we never want to give up big plays defensively,” Belichick said. “Make them drive the ball, make them earn their yards, [not] give it up in big chunks, which will be a big challenge for us this week.
“But that’s our objective every game, every year, every play.”