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Ben Volin | On Football

Patriots’ defense made effective adjustments on the fly vs. Bengals

FOXBOROUGH — Cornerback Logan Ryan couldn’t be happier with where the Patriots’ defense is at after six games this season.

“Extremely happy — 5-1,” Ryan said in the minutes following the Patriots’ 35-17 win over the Bengals on Sunday. “Just defeated a good team, a hungry team that came in here today, and we couldn’t be any happier with where we’re at.”

No doubt, the Patriots should be thrilled to be sitting at 5-1 and in early control of the top playoff seed in the AFC. And the defense is allowing just 15.1 points per game, ranked in the top five in the NFL. Andy Dalton and the Bengals could only muster 17 points, which usually isn’t enough to beat Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium.


But the Patriots are still looking for that complete, 60-minute effort on defense. They had one against Houston, shutting out the Texans, 27-0 on a short week, but have shown some worrisome cracks in most of their other games.

The Dolphins threw the ball all over them in the second half of Week 2. The Bills ran all over them in Week 4. And Dalton had his way with the Patriots’ defense through the first two-plus quarters, connecting on 17 of his first 21 passes and leading the Bengals to a 14-10 lead in the third quarter.

“Consistency is everything,” cornerback Malcolm Butler said. “You got to be what you want to be. You can’t be off and on.”

The Patriots seemed to badly miss linebacker Jamie Collins, who missed the game with a hip injury suffered last week in practice. Collins wasn’t there to blitz the quarterback up the middle, and wasn’t there to shadow the running backs. Gio Bernard had four catches for 45 yards, and when he was lined up on the outside against Barkevious Mingo — which normally would be Collins — Bernard burned him for a 32-yard gain.


Fortunately, the Patriots have the best coaching staff in the game, and were able to figure things out at halftime. That Cover 2 zone the Patriots were playing, with Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon splitting the deep part of the field, wasn’t working. The front four wasn’t getting any pressure on Dalton, and he had all day to find A.J. Green, who caught six passes for 88 yards.

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So the Patriots switched it up after halftime, and turned to their newest secret weapon — Eric Rowe, acquired from Philadelphia in a trade right before the season and pressed into duty on Sunday for the first time this season.

The Patriots switched from zone to man coverage and used Rowe, who stands 6 feet 1 inch and 205 pounds, to shadow Green. Rowe knocked a fade pass and a potential touchdown out of Green’s arms, and held him to one catch for 9 yards over the final 1½ quarters.

“First half was more zone calls. Andy Dalton was doing a good job of picking that apart,” said Rowe, who missed the first five games with an ankle injury. “So second half, you know, just got to make adjustments, and we started going man and it started working.”

“I thought overall our coverage in the second half, we just matched it better,” Bill Belichick added. “We played it better. We got a little more rush. Obviously we had the lead. That helped, too, towards the end of the game, so some of those things fell into place for us.”


Patriots fans have to feel good about how the defense figured it out after halftime. The Bengals only scored 3 points and gained 71 yards in the game’s final 22 minutes, and a close game turned into a romp.

Watch: Bill Belichick said Bengals ‘came ready to play’

“You guys know us — we just keep doing it and trying to find what works,” said McCourty. “And once we found it, we kind of got in a groove and played well.”

And you’ve got to respect the Patriots’ knack for making big plays on defense. They had a crucial goal-line stand in the second quarter, stopping the Bengals on the 1. And Dont’a Hightower’s sack in the end zone netted the Patriots 2 points and completely changed the course of the game. A 14-10 deficit turned to 14-12, New England scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession, and the Patriots were off to the races.

“It really brought the energy, and from that point we started to string more plays,” defensive end Chris Long said. “It just took awhile, but we finally made a big play.”

But for the first 35 minutes of the game, the defense was a big concern. And it has been a trouble spot for the Patriots at times throughout this opening stretch of the season.


The Patriots entered the day ranked 27th on third-down defense (44.6 percent), and while the Bengals only converted 5 of 13, they started out 5 of 8. Dalton was scrambling around, finding his receivers with ease and picking up big chunks of yards in the first half.

The Patriots’ inability to generate much of a pass rush is also a big concern. Last year, they were second in the NFL with 49 sacks. Entering Sunday they were tied for 22nd with just nine sacks in five games. They added two more on Sunday — 1½ for Hightower and half a sack for Jabaal Sheard — but they only hit Dalton four times on 34 dropbacks and didn’t force a turnover.

The Patriots don’t have a natural pass-rusher on the roster, and seem to miss Chandler Jones, who was traded away to Arizona in the offseason.

They’ve gotten away with their lack of a pass rush so far against Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill, Brock Osweiler, Tyrod Taylor, Cody Kessler, and Dalton. But next week’s game against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers will offer a test that might not look pretty for the Patriots’ defense.

For now, they’ll gladly take the 5-1 record. But they know they have to improve on defense to match the stellar offense.

“It’s one week at a time,” Long said. “We’re going to have to be good on third down against Pittsburgh, they’re so good offensively. We’ll take what we can learn from this game and just continue to build on it.”


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.