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The Patriots defense isn’t fixed yet

New England’s defense got a lot of help from the Buccaneers in a 19-14 win, but there are signs of a turnaround for the struggling unit.

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NFL: New England Patriots at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

If you just look at the scoreboard, Thursday night’s 19-14 win over the Buccaneers was a rebound performance for the struggling Patriots defense. For the first time all season, they held an opponent to less than 20 points, carrying a bigger share of the load on a night when Tampa’s pass rush was getting to Tom Brady with ease.

Things might not be as rosy for the Patriots defense as the final score suggests.

There is still no pass rush

The most glaring problem for the Patriots is their front seven. It’s telling when a team has to lean on three- and four-man rushes to pressure an opposing quarterback. That’s exactly what the Patriots did, acknowledging schematically that they don’t have the players to get after the passer.

Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston was pressured on just 15 percent of his dropbacks. Unfortunately for the Bucs, a little pressure was enough.

He only saw pressure four times in the first three quarters, but failed to complete five deep attempts.

They got by with phoning in the pass rush this week, and probably will next week against the Jets too. But sending three or four pass rushers to harass the quarterback won’t work so well in their Week 7 Super Bowl rematch with Matt Ryan and the Falcons.

The secondary got a break

New England’s pass rush problems were obvious to anyone with a spare two minutes to look over the depth chart. The biggest mystery of the Patriots’ struggling defense this year has been in the secondary, where there is talent — plenty of it.

At times this season, a lot of times this season, the defensive backfield has looked confused. After this game, players were feeling better about how they were synced up in the secondary.

“It was a lot better,” Malcolm Butler told reporters. “Communicating better, went out there and played with good confidence. Going back to the basics, just playing good, complementary football. We just went out there and got it done.”

If you’re a Pats fan looking for a silver lining, Devin McCourty had a great game, allowing just three completions on six targets for 16 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

Still, the Bucs threw for 334 yards and a touchdown. Winston put up 225 yards and completed 13 of 21 passes and threw a touchdown in the fourth quarter. A lot of that had to do with the Patriots sacrificing tighter coverage to prevent big plays and protect their fourth quarter lead.

More telling was Tampa Bay’s failure to test a struggling secondary. If you were looking for bunch formations from the Bucs receivers, you were disappointed. Throwing a few of those into the mix with that stacked group of receivers would have put that improved communications in the Patriots secondary to a much tougher test.

Buccaneers receivers also helped the Patriots by dropping five passes.

Signs of a turnaround?

It helps a struggling defense when an opponent misses three field goals. And they may gotten another break from Tampa’s coaching staff on the final play of the game. Facing another three-man rush, the Bucs decided, for some reason, to throw the ball to rookie tight O.J. Howard in the end zone down the middle of the field, instead of, say, Mike Evans, who was on the outside and has a well-earned reputation for making tough catches.

No matter how much coaching magic Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia can muster up, and they can muster up a lot, it’s unreasonable to expect this Patriots defense to turn things around in a single game.

How do you gauge just how much improvement we saw Thursday night when the Buccaneers were all to eager to help their opponents?

Take it from Belichick himself, the New England defense did the one thing that matters most — “You got a chance to win giving up 14 points.”

The Patriots play the Jets and the Chargers before their Week 9 bye, two easier games with a game against a good Falcons team sandwiched in between. The next three weeks will be a good opportunity to build on this week’s improvement.

And, the trade deadline is coming up in Week 8. I can’t imagine the Patriots won’t be active, sniffing around for pass rushers or some recycled Belichick player they can plug into the mix, for chemistry’s sake if nothing else.

Nothing about this week’s win was impressive, but it’s enough to build on, a starting point for the Patriots defense to get better. Even after five weeks of underwhelming results, there’s no reason to think New England’s defense won’t find a way to at least keep a shaky group wired together well enough for another run into the playoffs.

That’s great news if you’re a Patriots fan. But for everyone else waiting for this dynasty to finally fade, it means waiting at least another year.