FOXBOROUGH — On offense or defense, third down is the money down. Convert and it could lead to much-needed points; make a stop in a key situation and it can change the tide of a game.
Defensively, the Patriots could stand to improve on third down. Last year, they ranked 26th in the league in that category, allowing opponents to convert 98 of 232 chances, or 42.2 percent.
Discussing his group’s performance on third down on Wednesday, defensive end and captain Rob Ninkovich highlighted one area in particular where New England was particularly vulnerable.
“Some of the third-and-long situations, we weren’t able to get off the field,” he said. “I know third-and-long screens hurt us last year too, so specifically that play and the third-and-long situation as a whole, we’ve got to do a better job.
“Obviously, everything is working together, so coverage/rush, rush/coverage all works together. That’s just one area that we definitely need to work on this year.”
Last season, the Patriots faced 83 third-down situations between 4-8 yards when opponents passed, and allowed 40 conversions (48.2 percent).
Devin McCourty didn’t want to focus too much on the defense’s strengths or weaknesses last season, noting that some players are no longer with the Patriots.
But there are always ways to improve on third down.
“I think one of the greatest things about playing here is that we have coaches that find any and everything we can do to get better,” McCourty said. “One of the big things is just getting to the ball. It’s a play where you try to get the linemen up field, guys are dropping in coverage. Just effort and everything can help improve the screen game.”
The secondary in particular has seen an infusion of talent. Ninkovich believes the defense is going to be improved.
“You look at last year, and you definitely put that to bed as far as what we did last year. But you want to take some of the good things that you did out there and improve on those and then you see the things that you need to improve on,” he said. “As a whole defense, you want to be better this year, this season.
“I think that definitely, as a defense, we’re going to be a better defense, but we’ve got to put the work in. So that starts today.”
Coach: ‘Work to do’
Wearing his iconic hooded sweatshirt, Bill Belichick opened his press conference Wednesday morning with a smile, welcoming reporters to football season.
“We’re here,” he said. “It’s always an exciting time of year, the start of training camp.”
Belichick feels the Patriots had a productive spring.
“We’re kind of pulling it all together. [Spring] has really put us in position to start camp and we kind of get it going today with some conditioning stuff. We’re not in pads for a couple of days . . . It’s a good opportunity to get off to a good start. We’ll see how it goes.
“We obviously have a lot of work to do. We’ll just take it day by day and try to string some good days together and then see if we can get ready to go down and have good weeks against Washington and Philadelphia and into the preseason.
“From our coaching standpoint, I think it’s all going to happen pretty fast. Again, the spring preparation has been a really important part of this whole process. Now we’ll take it into the next step and hopefully get off to a good start these next couple days and getting into a good, solid week of work by ourselves and then be ready to work against two quality teams, two quality organizations.”
The Patriots will hold three days of joint practices with Washington beginning Aug. 4, before the teams’ preseason opener Aug. 7.
Praise for Wilson
Word around the Patriots is safety Tavon Wilson, a second-round pick in 2012, worked hard this offseason to improve in areas the coaching staff stressed to him. McCourty confirmed Wednesday that his teammate has been putting in time.
“I’m excited for him. I think sometimes guys get killed from the outside view and they’re still putting in the work,” McCourty said. “That’s why I’m excited. Tavon never budged at any second and just got down on himself and stopped working. This offseason in the springtime he’s been working incredibly hard just to get out there and play more.
“I think that’s his focus, just to get better as a football player and helping the team as much as possible, so it’s an exciting time for him coming into training camp. Each year guys come in and it’s a new year. You have new opportunities, new chances to get out there and play more.
“I think he’s put himself in pretty good position to come in here and compete and try to get on the field.”
After getting extensive work as a rookie, getting four starts, Wilson’s snaps plummeted last year, his role confined almost exclusively to special teams.
Though the starting safety spot next to McCourty seems to be Duron Harmon’s to lose, Wilson could put up a good fight.
News not a surprise
Belichick shed more light on the situation faced by Armond Armstead, who announced his retirement last week after not playing a snap for New England. Asked whether the team had an indication that Armstead would be retiring or if the news took him by surprise, Belichick said, “Armond had a problem, had an issue come up later in the spring and then it was resolved; it was resolved a week ago or whenever it was, it was a little bit of a process. I think after everything had come through, that was the decision that he made. So as that process was going on, we realized that was certainly a possibility.” A promising defensive lineman, Armstead, 23, suffered a heart attack while at Southern California that caused his draft stock to plummet. He spent the 2012 season with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, and then signed a three-year deal with the Patriots. Armstead underwent a procedure for an undisclosed infection last July, and spent the entire season on the non-football illness list . . . The Patriots shuffled the roster again on Wednesday, re-signing first-year receiver Greg Orton and releasing rookie receiver Tyler McDonald. Orton, listed at 6 feet 3 inches and 199 pounds, was signed to the practice squad Dec. 31 and released on May 22. The 28-year-old has also spent time with the Broncos and Bengals. McDonald, out of South Carolina State, was signed just five days ago.