Patriots 'D' hopes for continued third-down success

Patriots 'D' hopes for continued third-down success
September 19, 2013, 4:45 pm
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Josh Freeman and the Bucs haven't been great at converting on third downs, which should mean the Patriots find continued success in those situations.

(USA Today Sports Images)

FOXBORO -- For the first time in a long time, it seems, the Patriots are relying on their defense to carry them through games. Last week's 13-10 win over the Jets -- when quarterback Tom Brady completed less than half (19-of-39) of his pass attempts, for only 185 yards -- was a prime example.

Defensive end Rob Ninkovich said his unit prides itself on being dependable.

"We like that responsibility," Ninkovich said. "Pressure, whatever it may be, on us is a good feeling. As a defense, you know you're going out there and doing a good job holding other teams and giving our offense the most opportunity we can, just giving them the ball back.

"Are there things we have to work on? Of course. It's early in the season. We just have to have constant improvement throughout the season."

Giving the offense the ball back has been one of New England's early successes defensively to this point in the season. The Patriots rank fourth in the NFL in getting off the field on third down. In wins against the Bills and Jets, the Patriots have combined to hold opposing offenses to a 32.3 percent (10-of-31) conversion rate on third-down plays.

"That's a huge part of the game," Ninkovich said. "If you're staying on the field on third down, it's not a good thing. There's things to improve on and we gotta get better in certain areas. But getting off the field the way we have been is a good thing. We'll just have to continue that, and also improve."

The Buccaneers have been converting on third down at a rate 37.9 percent, which puts them almost squarely in the middle of the pack in the league, tied with Seattle for the NFL's 18th-best success rate.

Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin is option No. 1 and the Patriots will be looking to contain him when they're one snap away from forcing a punt. But Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman poses unique challenges of his own.

"He's a big guy," Ninkovich said. "I didn't realize how big he was until you see him in person. You don't realize he's 6-[foot]-5, 6-6. Big presence in the pocket."

Though he doesn't pose the same threat to break a long run that Jets quarterback Geno Smith or Bills signal-caller EJ Manuel did, Freeman does have some escapability. He ran three times against the Saints last week and broke one for a 13-yard gain.

"You have to keep him in the pocket as well," Ninkovich said. "But he's not as much of a scrambler as the last two guys that we've seen. As a 'D'-line you try to get the pressure on him and get him thinking."

Freeman has shown that he has a tendency to give the ball away when a defense bothers him. In each of his first two games this season, he has thrown one interception and fumbled once.

"That's just pressure and getting to him," Ninkovich said. "Not letting him stand back there and have all day. Getting pressure on him, having him make quick decisions, that's what you want to do to get after him."