TAMPA — The Patriots’ defenders were more relieved than excited following their 19-14 win over the Buccaneers on Thursday night.
The performance wasn’t perfect, but it certainly was a step in the right direction following a terrible start to the season in which the Patriots couldn’t cover a receiver and ranked last in the league in most important defensive statistics.
“It was a lot better,” cornerback Malcolm Butler said. “Communicating better, went out there and played with good confidence. Going back to the basics, just playing good, complementary football. We just went out there and got it done.”
Thursday’s squeaker allowed the Patriots to enter their mini-bye week with a 3-2 record. And for a change, it was the defense carrying the offense, on a night when Tom Brady struggled to get the ball in the end zone with Rob Gronkowski missing the game with a thigh injury.
“We could’ve helped them out a little bit more, put more points up on the board,” running back James White said. “But they played lights-out.”
The final numbers don’t look great. The Patriots allowed 409 yards, while Jameis Winston threw for 334, becoming the fifth straight quarterback to crack 300 yards against the Patriots this year. The Patriots might not be ranked No. 32 in total defense after this week, but they won’t jump too high in the rankings.
And the Patriots almost wilted in the fourth quarter. The Buccaneers gained 236 yards in the final 15 minutes, moving the ball into scoring range each time. If not for two missed field goals and one final, last-gasp throw into the end zone that was knocked away by Jonathan Jones, the Bucs could have pulled off the comeback.
But rankings are meaningless. The Patriots finally clamped down for most of the night on Thursday, and they kept the Buccaneers off the scoreboard for most of the game, allowing just 7 points through three quarters. And allowing just 14 points to a dynamic offense after allowing 33 in consecutive weeks is a nice bounce-back.
To do it on the road on a short week, and without big cornerback Eric Rowe, gives the defense a boost of confidence heading into the weekend.
“Obviously we’ve got things to fix,” safety Devin McCourty said. “But you can build off this as a defense.”
The Patriots accomplished a big goal on Thursday night — not getting embarrassed like they did last Sunday against Carolina. They couldn’t handle the Panthers’ presnap motion and bunch formations, and they let receivers run wide open up and down the field en route to a 3-point loss.
Thursday night, they simplified the defense. No more rotating and switching and communicating. It was classic, one-on-one football. Stephon Gilmore, you get Mike Evans. Butler, you get DeSean Jackson.
Jackson had five catches for 106 yards, but Butler was scrappy and competitive all game and only allowed one big catch, a 41-yarder in the fourth quarter.
And Gilmore, perhaps not surprisingly, had his best game as a Patriot. He trailed Evans almost the entire night, and allowed five catches for 49 yards, minimizing Evans’s impact.
Thursday’s performance was a relief for Gilmore, who was at the heart of the Patriots’ communication issues against Carolina.
“A lot better today. I was locked in on the communication,” Gilmore said. “I was following Evans, so that made it a little easier.”
When the Patriots gave Gilmore a five-year, $65 million contract this offseason, most of us imagined the Patriots would use him like they would on Thursday night. A rangy, 6-foot-1-inch cornerback, Gilmore would be able to cover 6-5 receivers such as Evans.
Gilmore said it was easier to prepare for this game knowing he only had one receiver to study.
“I was happy for it, to get on a guy, follow him everywhere he goes, study just him,” Gilmore said. “I was out to prove something.”
There was only one communication breakdown on Thursday night, when the Patriots left tight end Cameron Brate wide open for a big gain. But the play was wiped out by a block in the back.
Jackson’s 41-yarder in the fourth quarter also looked like a busted play by the defense, converting a third-and-15.
But the Patriots played safe, sound defense, and the result was a nice road win in a tough environment.
“Overall, we played exactly how we wanted to play,” McCourty said.
The defense still has issues, particularly with its conditioning. It melted down in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs and allowed the Panthers to march down the field for the winning field goal at the buzzer, and almost let the Buccaneers steal a win. The Bucs, after starting 0 for 7 on third down, converted 4 of 6 in the fourth quarter.
The pass rush also leaves much to be desired. Winston dropped back to pass 49 times, and the Patriots only got two sacks and six total hits on him. He had all night to scan the field and look for his receivers.
But the Patriots played tight, sound coverage with their simplified approach. And for a change, the defense helped a scuffling offense and carried the day.
“We don’t have to play perfect all the time to get a win,” McCourty said. “We just have to play smart, be on the same page, and not have mental errors, and I thought we did a better job of that.”