SANTA CLARA – Ignore the noise? Easier said than done.
Over the last 18 days, from the stunning Halloween trade of Jamie Collins to the forgettable prime-time performance against Seattle through Friday night's Instagram post by Jabaal Sheard alerted everyone he'd been given the Kevin McCallister treatment, the negative noise directed at the Patriots defense proved a little too hard to ignore.
But hearing it and buying into it are two different things, said Dont'a Hightower Sunday night after the Patriots' 30-17 win over the Niners.
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"There's always gonna be talk about what we need to do and how we've got Tom Brady but 'The defense needs to do this and the defense needs to do that,' " said Hightower. "But we got a good defense. We're not worried about what nobody else thinks. Whenever we can put things together and play the way we did today and execute and be able to get after the quarterback, we can put pressure on him, we're a good defense. We're not worried about trying to impress fans or whatever. We're going out there and doing our job. It might not be pretty but whatever Bill [Belichick] and [defensive coordinator] Matty [Patricia] put together in that game plan, we're going to go out and do our best to execute it."
It hasn't been pretty as the Patriots cast about for the right mix of players, scheme and execution. It's always a process with this team -- that's the approach they take -- but the course is usually set by Columbus Day, not Thanksgiving. Or after.
But other seasons are irrelevant now. While it's taking longer than we've come to expect and the Patriots have jettisoned a Pro Bowler and benched what figured to be a cornerstone defender, players I talked to acknowledge that it's a different kind of year but they aren’t indicating a lack of buy-in.
"An NFL season is a long season," said cornerback Logan Ryan, who rebounded from a tough night against the Seahawks with one of his better games of the season. "There's a lot of games and every game is its own story."
As for those outside the team slamming hands on panic buttons?
"We're 8-2 and one of the best records in the league. I couldn't imagine being on another team with a worse record with that amount of panic," he said. "You gotta sometimes ignore the noise good and bad and go out and execute."
The execution wasn't seamless Sunday.
After a terrific first drive for the defense with the Patriots unleashing some extra pressure, the Niners had a 12-play, 60-yard field-goal drive that had third-and-8 and third-and-9 conversions (the latter on a 26-yarder to running back Shaun Draughn when Hightower got picked at the line of scrimmage and couldn't get back in the play).
In the second quarter, there was an eight-play, 92-yard drive for a touchdown with Hightower on the sidelines for a good chunk of it and linebackers Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin getting tuned up a little bit.
But there were tweaks, too. There were the extra rushers, there was a much better job done by players "plastering" receivers when Colin Kaepernick started to move, and Ryan -- given the assignment of Jeremy Kerley -- played with far more confidence than he appeared to have been.
The performance does come with the caveat that the Niners' offensive personnel sucks and they are 1-9 now because they aren’t very good. But, even though it was a step-down in weight class for the Patriots, it was a step-up in performance.
"I think last week we showed things we obviously needed to work on," said Devin McCourty. "Need to work on fast if we want to continue to win. We did some of those things well today. But it doesn't matter if we don't come back next week and put in the work and do the same thing next Sunday. I think being here and being a veteran guy, you understand how much week by week you have to put in especially defensively. We do different things every week. No game plan and no game is really the same for us."
What the Patriots defense needs more than anything? The chance to face a few quarterbacks that don't run a 4.4 and have a penchant for running. That's been the common thread to their uncommonly permissive performances. Mobile quarterbacks the team wants to keep its eye on resulting in plays being extended, breakdowns emerging or plays being made and then -- quite often -- red-zone stiffening.
The perception that the defense isn't where it needs to be isn't some media or fan creation. The drastic personnel moves wouldn't have been made otherwise. But the worry that there's a splintering coming is not well-founded, according to Ryan.
"[Criticism] comes with the job," he said. "It comes with the salary, a lot of scrutiny. But a lot of these guys I've played with for eight years. On and off the field and they’re my best friends and we have each other's backs. It comes with the job. That's what we signed up for. I love it. We love to get our matchups and assignments and come out and execute it. It's not always gonna be perfect but if you're playing hard and stick with each other it will work itself out."
Patricia, who's been subject to little scrutiny during his tenure when things haven’t gone well, still has the confidence of key players like Hightower.
"We know what kind of team we are," he said. "Last week, we didn't execute as well but it felt good getting out this week. We had a great week of practice and executed the game plan and it really felt great all around. It all felt good to us, the players, the coaches, the game plan, we just had more continuity today. Matty P did a good job of calling the game and he knew what they wanted to do offensively and the way he called the game was great."
McCourty was asked if he was encouraged by Sunday.
"I have always been encouraged by this team," he said. "We have continued to put in the work. You have to believe if you are doing the right thing, you know it will turn around. You will have good games and you will continue to work and get better at the things you need. I was never down or out about this team. I knew we have the players to do it and continue to work at it to get it done."
They got it done Sunday punching down against the Niners. It's no leap -- and they'll say that -- but it's a step.