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Ben Volin | On Football

Even with its struggles, the Patriots’ defense clamped down when it mattered to beat the Titans

Jalen Mills (left) hustled to pounce on a fumble by Titans running back D'Onta Foreman in the third quarter.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots had just demolished the AFC’s No. 1 team with a 36-13 win over the Titans, but a Patriots player who didn’t participate in Sunday’s game knew what Bill Belichick’s reaction would be.

“Bill’s not going to be happy with that 250,” said the player as he headed toward the postgame locker room.

Actually, it was 270 rushing yards allowed by the Patriots Sunday, even with the Titans playing backup running backs in place of the injured Derrick Henry. It was the third-most rushing yards allowed in Belichick’s 22 seasons in Foxborough.

But all those rushing yards didn’t add up to many points. The Patriots’ defense clamped down when it had to, allowing just one touchdown and two field goals and forcing four turnovers.


“This game’s about points, not stats,” grumbled Titans coach Mike Vrabel after the game.

The Patriots weren’t totally satisfied, either. A shorthanded Titans team, playing without its top three wide receivers and top two running backs, still racked up 355 total yards and was more physical than the Patriots at the line of scrimmage.

Practice squad running back Dontrell Hilliard had 131 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown run, and backup running back D’Onta Foreman had 109 yards and a 30-yard run. It marked the first time in the Belichick era that two players rushed for 100 yards against the Patriots in the same game.

“We want to be perfect in everything,” said linebacker Matthew Judon, who picked up his 11½ sack of the season. “If they’re getting 300, 400 yards on the ground and only 13 points, you don’t want to take it, because you don’t want to give up that many plays on the ground, but you can live with it once.”

Despite a performance that was less than perfect, the Patriots’ defense was opportunistic as ever. It forced four turnovers for the second straight week, with three fumbles and an interception by J.C. Jackson in the end zone. The Patriots’ 25 takeaways are tied with Buffalo for second-most in the NFL.


“All four turnovers came from hustling,” safety Devin McCourty said. “All hustle plays, guys fighting for every inch. And we’ve got to keep doing that.”

The Patriots’ defense has been the team’s backbone during its six-game win streak, allowing just 10½ points per game and forcing 17 takeaways. But Sunday’s performance was a bit of a mixed bag.

The Patriots knew the Titans were going to run the ball, since they were playing without their top three wide receivers.

“They had four tight ends active, two fullbacks active, two running backs active, so it was pretty simple,” Patriots defensive tackle Davon Godchaux said. “They wanted to run the ball, establish the run. It wasn’t a secret.”

Yet the Patriots still struggled to stop the run. The Titans averaged 6.9 yards per attempt for the day, and even taking out the two big runs for 30 and 68 yards, the Titans still rushed for 172 yards on 4.7 yards per carry. On Hilliard’s 68-yard touchdown run, the Titans caught the Patriots in a lighter pass rush defense on third and 3.

“Any time you give up 100 yards rushing that’s not a good day,” Godchaux said. “But today I’ll take it. Yards don’t beat you, but points do.”


Foreman’s 30-yard run early in the third quarter ended up being the game’s decisive play, but not because of the yards gained by Foreman. McCourty slowed down Foreman from behind, and Jackson came from out of nowhere to windmill chop the ball out of Foreman’s grasp. Patriots cornerback Jalen Mills, also hustling down the field, jumped on the ball inches before it rolled out of bounds.

The Patriots didn’t score on the subsequent series, but they killed a Titans drive, then pinned them deep, leading to a touchdown later in the third quarter.

“If you see us practice all throughout the week, all our corners do that,” McCourty said of Jackson’s forced fumble. “It’s everybody hustling, everybody trying to get to the ball. J.C. punches it out, but it doesn’t matter unless J. Mills is hustling and gets on the ball. We keep talking about how our defense is an overall total defense, and guys playing together.”

Godchaux also punched out a fumble in the second quarter, and Kyle Van Noy ended the game with another forced fumble. All three of the Titans’ running backs — Hilliard, Foreman and Khari Blasingame – lost one.

But Jackson’s forced fumble was the real soul-crusher for the Titans, who were trailing, 19-13, and looked as if they were driving for the go-ahead score.

“I was 5 yards away from that ball,” Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “If I finish a little bit harder, maybe I can get on it or be the one to hit it out of bounds and not have the DB fall on it.”


Jackson also closed out the game as only he does — by snagging his seventh interception of the season, off a pass tipped by McCourty in the end zone. The interception came on fourth and goal in the fourth quarter and ended the Titans’ last threat.

Jackson, an impending free agent, is second in the NFL with seven takeaways, and that doesn’t include his forced fumble Sunday, the first of his career.

“As a defense we talk about creating turnovers every day,” Jackson said. “What you do in practice is what is going to carry over to the games.”

Even when the Patriots’ defense doesn’t have its best day, the players still have a knack for coming up with the big plays.

“Just a gritty win,” McCourty said. “We know it’s going to keep getting harder for the rest of the season. But we’ve got to keep getting better and keep playing our best ball.”

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Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.