By: Christopher Price
December 08, 2005

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If it's Thursday, it must be third down.

Every Thursday, the Patriots use the bulk of their practice time working on third-down defensive packages. On the surface, it seems like an odd choice. Lost amidst numbers like sacks and points per game, third-down defense is relatively innocuous stat. But consider this: Since 2001, when New England holds opposing offenses under 40 percent on third-down efficiency over the course of the full season, they are a playoff team. When they don't, they don't make the postseason.

Last time the Patriots met the Bills, it wasn't pretty, as the New England defense was unable to get off the field for much of the contest. The Patriots pulled out a 21-16 win, but the memory of several sustained Buffalo drives continues to haunt New England Head Coach Bill Belichick. It included three Bills' drives of more than five minutes, as well as a series in the first half where Buffalo converted on five of their first seven third down attempts "" which included gaining a first after the Patriots had the Bills pinned with a third-and-15.

"They did everything. Everything. They killed us,"¯ Belichick said of Buffalo's third-down efficiency "" the Bills eventually converted 7-of-14 attempts on third down on the night. "You could go right down the line. We had a hard time and couldn't pick one up.

"The only one we converted was on a quarterback sneak,"¯ Belichick continued. "I don't think you're going to pick up too many that way. You better find something else to do besides quarterback sneak."¯

Overall this year, New England opponents are converting 42 percent of the time on third down. After struggling midway through the season -- San Diego, Buffalo, Indianapolis and New Orleans all converted at a rate of 50 percent or better on third down against the Patriots' defense -- the numbers have gotten better lately for New England. Despite losing to the Chiefs, the Patriots' defense held Kansas City to 40 percent efficiency on third down, while last week against the Jets, New York converted at just 29 percent.

According to linebacker Mike Vrabel, the recent string of third down success is not the result of a new defensive wrinkle, but can be directly attributed to what New England has been doing when it comes to first and second down.

"Third-and-eight, third-and-nine, third-and-10, whatever it is, it's a lot easier to defend and get off the field than third-and-two or third-and-three,"¯ Vrabel said. "I think if we do a better job on first and second down, then third down is going to start looking a lot better. And in turn, they won't get as many opportunities. They're not going to get 70 to 75 plays a game, and things are going to start to look better.

"It really does start on first and second down."¯

In addition, a more aggressive game plan -- one that included more blitz packages -- helped the Patriots' defense turn in their best defensive effort of the season. They held a team under 16 points for the first time all season, and the Jets managed just 164 net yards, the lowest offensive output for a New England opponent this season.

Defensive lineman Richard Seymour would love to see that carry over to this Sunday's game against the Bills.

"We were just a whole lot more aggressive in our game plan. We just kind of took the fight to them,"¯ Seymour said of the defensive effort against the Jets. "We just had to change up what we were doing if we wanted different results. We got different results. Now, it's just a matter of wanting to go out and be consistent and putting together two good performances, back to back."¯

Christopher Price covers the Patriots for Boston Metro and Bostonsportsreview.com. He can be reached at capeleaguer@hotmail.com.


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