Pa­tri­ots de­fense mak­ing strides at the right time

The Day - - SPORTS - By KYLE HIGHTOWER

Foxbor­ough, Mass. — For each of the past two sea­sons, the iden­tity of the Pa­tri­ots de­fense didn't be­come clear un­til late in the year.

Both times the group had stum­bles early, fol­lowed by steady im­prove­ment. Those leaps were aided at least in part by the in­creased con­tri­bu­tions of new­com­ers or role play­ers that pre­vi­ously had much smaller roles.

That pat­tern is hold­ing true in 2018 as the Pa­tri­ots pre­pare for backto-back road games at Mi­ami and Pitts­burgh that will go a long way in de­ter­min­ing their play­off seed­ing.

Ear­lier this sea­son, New Eng­land's op­po­nents took ad­van­tage of a de­fense that strug­gled to get pres­sure up front and that was sus­cep­ti­ble to giv­ing up big plays in the sec­ondary.

After al­low­ing 300 or more pass­ing yards four times in its first seven games, New Eng­land (9-3) has not al­lowed a 300-yard passer in five straight games. It also has not al­lowed a 100-yard rusher in nine straight games, go­ing back to Week 3 against the Lions when Ker­ryon John­son did it.

Those are im­por­tant mark­ers for a Pa­tri­ots de­fense that has had trou­ble re­cently at Mi­ami. New Eng­land is 177 against the Dol­phins since 2007, but has lost four of its past five at Hard Rock Sta­dium.

Ryan Tan­nehill threw for 350 yards and two TDs in the Dol­phins' 20-10 win in the 2015 reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale in Mi­ami.

That came a sea­son after Know­shon Moreno rushed for 134 yards and a touch­down in Mi­ami's 33-20 win to open the 2014 sea­son. Tan­nehill had two touch­down passes in that game to help the Dol­phins outscore

the Pa­tri­ots 23-0 in the sec­ond half.

"It's a week-to-week chal­lenge in the sea­son," Pa­tri­ots Bill Belichick said of his de­fense's evolv­ing iden­tity. "We haven't es­tab­lished any­thing against Mi­ami, so we'll have to go down and do that on Sun­day and we'll see what hap­pens. Cer­tainly, they'll be a big chal­lenge for us."

Since al­low­ing a sea­son-high 40 points in their win over Kansas City in Week 6, only two teams have scored more than 17 against the Pa­tri­ots over the past six games — Chicago (38-31 win over the Bears) and Ten­nessee (34-10 loss to the Ti­tans).

One rea­son the Pa­tri­ots de­fense has tight­ened has been the im­prove­ment of the sec­ondary. That has in­cluded key con­tri­bu­tions from rookie cor­ner­back J.C. Jack­son, who has seen an in­creased role since Eric Rowe was placed on in­jured re­serve at the end of Oc­to­ber.

Jack­son has two in­ter­cep­tions and con­trib­uted to an­other in last week's win over Min­nesota, tip­ping Kirk Cousins' pass into the hands of team­mate Duron Harmon in the clos­ing min­utes.

Lineback­ers coach Brian Flo­res, who is call­ing plays for the de­fense this sea­son, said Jack­son and fel­low rook­ies Keion Crossen and Duke Daw­son have earned the trust of their team­mates through their work ethic off the field.

Belichick said Jack­son's ball skills first caught their at­ten­tion as an un­drafted player in the spring.

"He's just been very depend­able and got­ten bet­ter ev­ery day. It's not al­ways per­fect, but he learns from his mis­takes and cor­rects things," Belichick said. "It's taken a lit­tle time for him to gain some ex­pe­ri­ence, but he's do­ing a good job with it."

Safety Devin McCourty said Jack­son's will­ing­ness to be on an is­land at times will serve him and the team well go­ing for­ward.

"I think we're start­ing to feel it that he knows we be­lieve in him," McCourty said.

"We know he's tal­ented and can play and we've got his back . ... We had him in some tough sit­u­a­tions where we were count­ing on him to make plays some­times by him­self with no help and he showed up. He had been do­ing that ev­ery time we gave him an op­por­tu­nity to be out there."

STEVEN SENNE/AP PHOTO

New Eng­land de­fen­sive back J.C. Jack­son, right, breaks up a pass in­tended for Min­nesota’s Aldrick Robin­son dur­ing Sun­day’s game at Gil­lette Sta­dium in Foxbor­ough, Mass.

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