Patriots defense stout on fourth down vs. Bucs

Patriots defense stout on fourth down vs. Bucs
September 22, 2013, 6:45 pm
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FOXBORO -- Four times the Buccaneers chose to go for it on fourth down. Four times they failed. Four times the Patriots defense took the Tampa Bay conversion attempt personally.

"It's almost like a slap in the face when somebody goes for it on fourth down," Patriots defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said. "Like 'Ya'll can't stop us.' You know, anytime you stuff 'em like that, it takes a little wind out of them."

For the third week in a row, the Patriots defense made the requisite stops to spark a victory, beating the Buccaneers 23-3 at Gillette Stadium to move to 3-0.

The first fourth-down stop came early in the second quarter with the Bucs ahead, 3-0. Maybe Tampa was rushing to catch New England off-guard, or maybe they knew they were going to go for it from New England's 34-yard line all along. (It would have been about a 51-yard field goal for Ryan Lindell, who missed a 38-yarder in the first quarter.) Either way, their decision to go hurry-up and force a Josh Freeman pass to Mike Williams didn't work out. Alfonzo Dennard and Williams had their legs tangled, both fell, and the pass bounced away incomplete.

Eleven plays later, the Patriots offense posted its first touchdown of the game when Tom Brady hit Kenbrell Thompkins for a 16-yard score.

"When a team goes for it on fourth down, it's a huge momentum swing no matter what," Devin McCourty said. "If they get it, a lot of times, especially in a situation like we had today, it probably would've equalled points for them. But for us to turn around, our offense capitalized. That's how you stick daggers into 'em."

On Tampa Bay's next drive, coach Greg Schiano rolled the dice yet again. On a fourth-and-1 try at the Patriots 38-yard line, the Bucs handed it off to their workhorse back Doug Martin. A double team on Vince Wilfork opened the left side of the line of scrimmage for Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes to fill in and wrestle Martin to the ground after he picked up just a half-yard.

Again, the Patriots took advantage, scoring 13 plays later when Thompkins scored on a Brady pass from five yards away.

Two more fourth-down stops in the fourth quarter, with the game well in hand, preserved the Patriots defense's shutout. They also stopped the Bucs nine times on third down (Tampa Bay was 5-for-14 on third down) and held them to just one score on six trips inside the Patriots 40-yard line.

According to Kelly, those bend-don't-break results are just part of the game plan preached by coach Bill Belichick from week to week.

"Coach harps that right there," Kelly said. "They gonna get yards. They gonna move the ball sometimes. The most important thing is to make them kick field goals. They can move up and down the field all they want but if we got five field goals, we good. That's what he [wanted] so I guess that's what we tried to get him."

Of course, part of what made the Patriots so successful on third and fourth down was putting the Bucs in difficult situations on first and second down. They held Doug Martin to 88 yards and no touchdowns on 20 carries. His longest run was just 11 yards.

"I think New England’s defense has played well all season. They played well today," Schiano said. "They would pressure at times on our quarterback, [I] thought they covered well, schematically they were sound in the run game and didn’t give up big runs."

By bottling up Martin early in drives, the Patriots were able to rush Freeman aggressively in obvious passing situations. That's when defensive end Chandler Jones' eyes light up. Especially if it's a fourth down.

"When pass rush comes big into play I definitely take it personally," said Jones, who had half-sacks in the first and third quarters. "[I] try to put the team on my shoulders and try to make that play. Not being selfish, just being a team player, trying to help my teammates get that stop."

Less than an hour after the win over Tampa Bay, Kelly began to let his focus shift toward next week's task: Stopping Atlanta's Matt Ryan and company. Once again, the focus will be getting stops on third down -- and maybe fourth if the Falcons choose to go for it.

"They got a great offense so we gotta try to get off the field as much as possible," Kelly said. "Get a couple three and outs, keep them out of the end zone."