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Patriots keep winning despite shaky defense

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Patriots keep winning despite shaky defense

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) The New England Patriots keep winning despite a defense that keeps struggling.

They're missing tackles, giving receivers plenty of space and allowing long gains. Coach Bill Belichick, admired for his defensive brilliance, hasn't figured out how to get his players to correct all that so they won't need to make game-saving plays late in the fourth quarter.

``There are a lot of things that we can do a lot better,'' linebacker Jerod Mayo said Monday, ``just starting with the fundamentals. Tackling, going out there executing the plays that the coaches call and going out there and getting off of the field on third down are things that we have to improve on.''

It took an interception in the end zone by Devin McCourty with 23 seconds left to secure a 37-31 win over the struggling Bills on Sunday. That was less of an outstanding play by McCourty, who caught a ball thrown right to him, than it was a poor one by Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and intended receiver T.J. Graham, who took the blame for it.

Just three week earlier, the Patriots got another turnover on their opponent's last offensive play and escaped with a 29-26 overtime win against the New York Jets. That time, Mark Sanchez fumbled when he was sacked and Rob Ninkovich recovered, ending the game.

But in the third game of the season, the defense couldn't stop the Baltimore Ravens when they got the ball at their 21-yard line with 1:55 left. They made it all the way to the Patriots 9 before Justin Tucker kicked a 27-yard field goal on the final play to give the Ravens a 31-30 win.

``We're lucky that (Sunday) we were not really at our best but still able to win and make enough plays to win. We've also been in a couple games kind of like that that we didn't win,'' Belichick said. ``You hate to leave it to come down to one play like that, have a little more control of the game than that. That's the National Football League, too. There are an awful lot of games that come down to that one possession, one play.''

The defense has been saved by its knack for forcing turnovers at critical times. It leads the AFC with 23 takeaways and is first in the NFL with 13 fumble recoveries. One of the Patriots' two recoveries against Buffalo came at their 1-yard line with the score 34-24 and 9:35 left in the game.

Still, they allowed one of the weakest teams in the NFL to run up big numbers.

The Bills set a club record with 35 first downs. They also gained a season-high 481 yards. Their previous best? Also against the Patriots, 438 yards in a 52-28 loss in the fourth game of the season.

The Patriots have allowed the eighth-most yards in the league, 382.1 per game. They may not think about that when they're just trying to make a play, but McCourty is concerned.

``We worry about that,'' he said.

Thanks largely to their prolific offense - they lead the NFL with 430.3 yards and 33.2 points per game - the Patriots are 6-3, the only winning record in the AFC East.

``We can always get better and do things a little differently,'' defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. ``There are some scheme and fundamental things we'd like to clean up, but we got away with a `W' to be 6-3. You've got to be proud of that.''

Their performances against some of the NFL's weaker quarterbacks are nothing to rave above.

Fitzpatrick, Sanchez and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks threw for their highest yardage totals this season against the Patriots. Joe Flacco, a better passer for one of the top teams, did that with the Ravens.

The Patriots also have been vulnerable to the big play. They've allowed 44 completions of more than 20 yards, nearly five a game. Fitzpatrick had five of those on Sunday.

New England expects cornerback Aqib Talib, obtained from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to improve the defense when he plays his first game with the Patriots next Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. While the Patriots were playing the Bills, he completed his four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.

He'll practice with the Patriots for the first time on Wednesday.

``It will be a big week for us, a big game versus the Colts,'' McCourty said. ``Just to get another guy out there that you know is a good player, it will be exciting.''

The defense certainly can use the help after Sunday's struggles.

``We had two or three sacks in the game. Guys were out there playing physical,'' Mayo said. ``Those are some of the things that you can take away and build on. But, at the same time, it's hard to look at those things when you give up 30-something points in a game.''

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Will Suggs still be an impact player when he comes off PUP?

Will Suggs still be an impact player when he comes off PUP?

Clifton Brown and Bo Smolka are taking turns putting 25 key Ravens under the microscope leading up to veterans reporting to training camp. They’ll speculate on a best-case, worst-case scenario for at least one player every day, concluding with quarterback Joe Flacco on July 25.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Terrell Suggs, 33-year-old outside linebacker

Best-case scenario:

Suggs makes a full recovery from Achilles injury and returns as a double-digit sack artist and three-down linebacker.

Why it could happen:

Suggs knows people are wondering how much quality football he has left. It’s dangerous to write off great players too soon. Suggs would love to silence skeptics with a strong season, and if some of the young Ravens pass rushers develop, they won’t have to overwork Suggs. If he stays healthy once he comes off the PUP list, a player with Suggs’ talent and experience can still be a valuable defensive leader.

Worst-case scenario:

The Achilles injury limits what Suggs can do, and he is no longer an impact player.

Why it could happen:

It’s asking a lot of Suggs to remain a cog in the Ravens’ defense, after 106 ½ career sacks, and entering his 14th NFL season. Sooner or later, the NFL road will end for Suggs, just like it ended for his former great defensive teammates like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. It will be interesting to hear Suggs’ thoughts on his career when he meets with the media Wednesday. If 2016 is not Suggs’ last ride, the end of the journey is getting closer.

RELATED: FIVE YOUNG PASS RUSHERS TO WATCH

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Five young pass rushers to watch, with Suggs and Dumervil on PUP

Five young pass rushers to watch, with Suggs and Dumervil on PUP

With Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil starting training camp on the PUP list, the Ravens’ young pass rushers have an opportunity to show what they’ve got.

It’s not surprising, or overly alarming, that Suggs (Achilles) and Dumervil (foot) aren’t ready to participate in full-team practices, which begin Thursday. The priority for them is to be ready by Week 1.

But the reality is that Suggs is 33 years old and Dumervil is 32 – closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Remember when the Ravens loaded up on pass rushers in the draft? Training camp and the preseason will shed light on which young pass rushers are ready to contribute, and which ones are not.

RELATED: RAVENS NAME SIX PLAYERS TO THE PUP LIST

Here are five young Ravens pass rushers to watch closely during training camp and the preseason:

Kamalei Correa, rookie OLB

Correa might see more time at inside linebacker as a rookie, because the Ravens are looking for a starting inside linebacker next to C. J. Mosley. However, Correa’s skills as a pass-rushing outside linebacker at Boise St. convinced the Ravens he was worthy of being a second-round pick. If Correa is getting pressure on quarterbacks, the Ravens will find consistent snaps for him.

Matt Judon, rookie DE

He led the nation in sacks last season with 20 at Grand Valley State. As a fifth-round pick, Judon is making a major leap to the NFL and he is raw. But he also has size (6-foot-3, 275 pounds) and athleticism. Judon could earn an immediate role as a situational pass rusher.

Bronson Kaufusi, rookie DE

He’s huge (6-foot-6, 285 pounds). He’s mature, already 25 years old after completing a two-year Mormon mission before attending BYU. And he’s athletic, good enough to spend one season on BYU’s basketball team before focusing on football. The Ravens’ third-round pick, Kaufusi could also earn a role as a situational pass rusher.

Victor Ochi, undrafted OLB

Ochi (6-foot-1, 245 pounds) has a body build like Dumervil – powerful with a low center of gravity. The Ravens have had at least one undrafted rookie make their roster for 12 straight years. Ochi could extend that streak. He was hoping to be the first player from Stony Brook ever drafted. Now he’s hoping to prove he should have been drafted.   

Za’Darius Smith, second-year OLB

Smith finished strong as a rookie. Of his 5 ½ sacks, 3 ½ came over the final three games. According to Smith, Ravens coach John Harbaugh wants 10 sacks from Smith this season. If Smith becomes a double-digit sack artist, the Ravens’ pass rush will take a major leap.

MORE RAVENS: WILL SMITH'S BODY BETRAY HIM AGAIN?

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Suggs, Smith among six Ravens named to PUP list

Suggs, Smith among six Ravens named to PUP list

The Ravens announced six players placed on the physically unable to perform list Saturday - linebacker Terrell Suggs, wide receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Breshad Perriman, linebacker Elvis Dumervil, running back Trent Richardson, and cornerback Jumal Rolle.

Quarterback Joe Flacco (knee), cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot), tight end Dennis Pitta (hip), and cornerback Will Davis (knee) were not placed on PUP, indicating they were ready for the team’s first full-team training camp practice Thursday.

Any player on the PUP list can be activated and return to practice at any point prior to the regular season. Once a player is placed on the regular-season PUP list, he must sit out at least the first six weeks of the regular season.

RELATED: WILL SMITH'S BODY BETRAY HIM AGAIN?

Rolle (Achilles injury) is expected to miss the entire season. Here’s the breakdown on the other five PUP list players:

Suggs – He still has not fully recovered from his season-ending Achilles injury suffered in Week 1 last September. Suggs is scheduled to meet with the media Wednesday, where further details about his progress should be revealed.

Smith Sr. – Also recovering from a season-ending Achilles injury suffered in November. Smith said he would not care if he missed the entire preseason. His priority is to be ready by Week 1.

Perriman – He suffered a knee injury during minicamp which did not require season-ending surgery. However, Perriman has still not played a preseason or regular season game since being drafted in the first round in 2015. After two knee injuries in two years, the Ravens have every reason to be cautious with Perriman until they think he is ready to return.

Dumervil – He had offseason foot surgery after playing through pain last season. Dumervil missed mandatory minicamp, but did not sound concerned about being ready for Week 1.

Richardson – His lingering hamstring issue could ruin his bid for an NFL comeback. The Ravens are deep at running back, and Richardson needs to get healthy to have any chance to win a roster spot.

MORE RAVENS: FLACCO HAS LONG ODDS FOR MVP