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Third-down defense a top priority for Patriots

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Third-down stops have been elusive for Devin McCourty (right) and his defensive teammates.
Third-down stops have been elusive for Devin McCourty (right) and his defensive teammates.Kevin Sabitus

The Patriots don't talk much about being No. 2 in the NFL in points allowed (15.2 per game). Ranking No. 13 in yards allowed isn't a prominent topic of discussion, either.

Rather, it's the difficulty on third down that is occupying a lot of the defense's time.

The Patriots may be 5-1 and allowing only two touchdowns per game, but they're 27th in the NFL on third down, allowing 44.2 percent conversions (34 of 77).

"That's not good, huh?" quipped free safety Devin McCourty.

The Patriots are nearly 15 percentage points worse than Seattle, the NFL's best third-down defense at 29.9 percent.


"I'd be lying if I said that wasn't one thing we've talked about over and over again," McCourty said. "We've played well at times, but obviously, overall we haven't. It's something we know we have to work on if we want to try and continue that success."

That the Patriots are currently 27th is an improvement; they were 30th after the Week 4 loss against Buffalo. They have done slightly better the last two weeks, but still allowed the Bengals and Browns to convert 40 percent of their opportunities (10 of 25).

Linebacker and defensive captain Dont'a Hightower said that improving on third downs is "absolutely" one of the top priorities.

"We do really good on first and second downs, and then third downs have been a little bit of trouble for us," Hightower said. "We've worked on it really hard this week. We'll have another shot at it today so hopefully we'll be able to get that corrected before the end of the season."

The Patriots have been able to overcome their third-down issues with timely stops and a great offense, but McCourty warned that this current formula may not be sustainable.

"I wouldn't bet on it," he said. "Third down is all about matchups. You've got to win individual matchups whether it's in the pass rush, whether it's in coverage. You've got to go out there and somebody has to make a play to get off the field."


All the way back

Rob Gronkowski has had a nice little week. First, on Sunday, he had a career-high 162 receiving yards in the 35-17 win over the Bengals. On Wednesday, there was more positive news: Gronkowski did not appear on the Patriots injury report for the first time all season.

"I really don't even pay attention really to the injury report," he said. "I've been doing everything now, so that's why I'm off it."

Gronkowski sat out the first two games and played sparingly in the next two because of a hamstring pull suffered in training camp. He has remained limited in practice even as he returned to the full lineup the last two weeks, catching a total of 12 passes for 271 yards and one touchdown.

But as Gronkowski showed Sunday against the Bengals, he's finally fully healthy.

"I've just been building it up over the weeks," he said. "It went good. It was a very smooth process."

Gronkowski also raved about the touchdown pass that Tom Brady threw him in the fourth quarter against the Bengals. Gronkowski thought he was covered well and Brady would throw the ball elsewhere.

"I truly believed that it wasn't going to come to me," Gronkowski said. "I felt like the coverage and everything [was] there. But the way he can just sneak a ball in and have the receiver be the only guy being able to make the play is just an unreal characteristic that he has as a quarterback."


Gronkowski also said he wasn't aware of any fine or punishment stemming from the 15-yard taunting penalty he received in the fourth quarter against the Bengals. The NFL may levy a fine of $9,115 for taunting.

"No, I haven't heard anything. Have you?" Gronkowski said. "Sometimes you guys know more info than I do, no lie."

Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was fined $75,000 for stomping on LeGarrette Blount in the fourth quarter of that game.

His honor

This week, Hightower became the first Patriots linebacker to win AFC Defensive Player of the Week since Mike Vrabel in 2007. "Definitely appreciate the recognition, but I think we all know that one guy doesn't make the team, especially on defense," said Hightower, who had 13 tackles, 1½ sacks, and a safety against the Bengals. "Definitely have a lot of help with those other 10, 11 guys that help. I was just the only one who was able to get singled out. But I appreciate it."

All in

The Patriots had 100 percent attendance at practice for the second day in a row, and there was only one change to the injury report: backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was taken off for the first time since suffering a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder in Week 3. The Patriots had nine players who were limited: Martellus Bennett (ankle), Jamie Collins (hip), Julian Edelman (foot), Brandon Bolden (knee), Woodrow Hamilton (shoulder), Shea McClellin (concussion), Malcolm Mitchell (hamstring), Elandon Roberts (ankle), and Vincent Valentine (back). The Steelers elevated three players from limited to full practice: linebacker Ryan Shazier, safety Michael Mitchell, and safety Robert Golden. Running back DeAngelo Williams and right tackle Marcus Gilbert both sat out their second straight practices, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and defensive end Cam Heyward have both been ruled out this week . . . The Patriots signed linebacker Trevor Reilly to the practice squad and released wide receiver Shaquelle Evans. Reilly, 28, was released by the Jets last month.


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