Thursday, January 18, 2018
Sports

Patriots D ignores critics on way back to Super Bowl

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — There's a mantra that players quickly come to learn when they play for Bill Belichick and the Patriots.

It's placed in different spots in the locker room, it's on the walls around the team facility, and the coach himself repeats it often: "Do your job."

Perhaps no other unit for the Patriots has embodied Belichick's go-to phrase more than his defense this season.

And if New England hopes to capture its fifth Super Bowl, no other group will be relied on more as the Patriots face a Falcons offense that has totaled 80 points in two playoff games.

Defensive back Duron Harmon, who had a touchdown-saving tackle in the second quarter of the Patriots' 36-17 AFC Championship Game win over Pittsburgh on Sunday, said that even in their tightknit world they couldn't help but notice the criticism that surrounded the defense earlier this season.

"Oh yeah, definitely. We try not to focus too much on the media, but we hear it, it's everywhere," Harmon said. "We heard that we weren't tested all year."

It was back in training camp that the Patriots first began to be dogged by questions about what their identity would be on defense following the trade of edge rusher Chandler Jones.

When they struggled to create a pass rush during the first month of the regular season, it did little to quiet critics.

That was followed by the surprise midseason trade of linebacker Jamie Collins and a three-week stretch in which the defense failed to force a turnover.

That turned early compliments for new additions such as Chris Long and Eric Rowe into pressure on the shoulders of New England veteran linebacker Dont'a Hightower and a secondary led by Devin McCourty and Logan Ryan to increase their production.

They responded by having the stingiest scoring defense in the NFL over the final three weeks of the regular season. They entered the playoffs giving up a league-low 15.6 points per game. They've maintained that status in the playoffs, allowing just 16.5 points per game.

Belichick said the formula has simply been his players buying into the program. But he said getting to face playoff-bound teams late in the season was a boost as well.

"It doesn't happen overnight. There's no switch that you can flip," Belichick said. "It comes through a lot of hard work, a lot of meetings, a lot of communication on how we're going to do things and then a lot of on the field execution at actually doing them at a good competitive level so that we can gain confidence in each other as a unit as to how that's going to happen in a live game situation."

WASHINGTON PROMOTES TWO: Washington promoted Matt Cavanaugh to offensive coordinator and Greg Manusky to defensive coordinator. Cavanaugh was the team's quarterbacks coach and Manusky its outside linebackers coach.

49ERS SEARCH: Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is expected to interview with the 49ers for their head coaching vacancy Friday in Atlanta. Shanahan can't be officially hired until after the Super Bowl.

BROWNS: Linebacker Jamie Collins signed a four-year, $50 million contract.

EAGLES: Mike Groh was named wide receivers coach. Groh was the Rams' passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach.

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