Devin McCourty and Mac Jones share several passions — a love of football, a commitment to their craft, and the thrill of competition.
But not their choice of self-motivation. Jones has a picture hanging in his locker of himself walking dejectedly off the field last January in Buffalo. Written on the picture is “47-17,” the score of the Patriots’ wild-card loss to the Bills.
McCourty doesn’t need the daily reminder.
“I’m not like that,” McCourty said recently. “Listen, I get it, ‘cause I was there that night. It wasn’t pretty. It was embarrassing. But I don’t need to look at that every day for motivation.”
The overall stats for the 2021 Patriots defense look terrific: No. 2 in points allowed. No. 4 in yards allowed. No. 2 in pass defense. No. 3 in turnovers.
But the picture in Jones’s locker tells a different story. The Patriots’ 30-point loss to the Bills was the NFL’s largest playoff defeat in four years. The Bills’ offense executed a perfect game — seven drives, seven touchdowns.
And it wasn’t an anomaly for the Patriots defense. One of the NFL’s strongest units through the first 13 games — before the bye week — the defense fell apart over the final five games.
The Patriots stopped sacking the quarterback. They stopped forcing turnovers. They couldn’t stop the run. And they couldn’t stay in the game. The Patriots went 1-4 in their final five games — their lone win a blowout over the hapless Jaguars — and in those losses were outscored by a combined 78-20 in the first half.
The Patriots defense finished top 10 in scoring for the 10th straight year, but that was no Patriots defense over the final five games.
“Do we have something to prove? I don’t care,” McCourty said. “I want to win, so I think that’s what we want to prove.”
On WEEI this past week, linebacker Matthew Judon mentioned that he worked on his conditioning this offseason. Last year, his first with the Patriots, he had 12½ sacks in the first 13 games, and no sacks with just 12 tackles over the last five. Judon’s 877 snaps in the regular season were a career high.
“It’s a long season. I’ve got to be fresh,” Judon said. “I’ve been asking some older veterans about how they did it, how they made it through year upon year of being great throughout the whole season.”
But Judon was hardly the only one to finish meekly. The Patriots defense buckled across the board in December and January:
|Games 1-13||Rank||Games 14-18||Rank|
|Total yards allowed||327.1||3||347.2||20|
|Yards per rush allowed||4.42||22||5.06||31|
|Rushing yards per game allowed||114.5||18||157.8||31|
|Passing yards per game allowed||212.6||3||189.4||9|
|Points allowed per game||15.4||1||30.0||30|
▪ They were No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed through 13 games (15.4). Over their final five, they ranked 30th (30.0).
▪ They stopped getting to the quarterback. They ranked No. 4 in the NFL with 32 sacks in their first 13 games. Over the final five, they ranked 30th with just four.
▪ The defensive front was abysmal in the final five games, ranking 31st in rushing yards allowed (157.8 per game) and in average gain (5.06 yards).
▪ They stopped creating turnovers, with just four in their final five games, after 26 in 13 games.
It was part of a troubling end-of-season trend for the Patriots. Including playoffs, they have gone just 6-11 in December and January over the last three seasons.
The Patriots made a few significant changes to the defense this offseason — swapping out older linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Kyle Van Noy for younger ones, and moving on from cornerback J.C. Jackson — but otherwise brought back up to nine starters.
McCourty said a big theme of this training camp was finishing stronger and being ready to play their best football in the season’s most important games, as the Patriots used to do every year.
“Obviously he’s talking about conditioning, being ready at the end of the season, but I would take it a step further,” McCourty said of Judon. “It translates into beating the teams that you have to beat to be good in this league. We start Week 1, in our division, against a team that swept us last year [the Dolphins]. These are games where if you want to have the type of season you want to have, we’ve got to be ready to go in Miami, Week 1, playing the Dolphins.”
McCourty said he sees players such as Judon and Jalen Mills, who came to the Patriots last season as free agent signees, now being fully settled in.
“I think we’ve gotten a lot of leadership from those guys — Jonathan Jones, Adrian Phillips, Judon, Mills, Deatrich Wise, Lawrence Guy, [Davon] Godchaux,” McCourty said. “Now we look at those guys as Patriots. We need not just great play from you, we need the other stuff, the leadership and guidance. And I think that’s what we’ve gotten so far.”
The Patriots offense got most of the publicity in camp, and most of it negative. But the flip side is that the defense has been playing well. And McCourty said he was pleased with how the defense responded to adversity in joint practices against the Raiders.
“We were playing against a good offense, a good offense even without Darren Waller,” McCourty said. “We had some really good days against our offense, and Carolina in the practices, but going out there [to Las Vegas], not everything went right. And guys just kept going at it, kept attacking it, and I think that’s the start to have a good foundation.”
It’s one thing for the Patriots defense to build a good foundation. But it needs to maintain it all the way through January.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.