'We're together': Patriots aim to avoid internal division as offense struggles

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

Unity challenged: One of the challenges facing the Patriots as a result of record-breaking back-to-back blowout losses is maintaining unity between the offense and defense.

Longtime captain David Andrews, the team's starting center, struck an empathetic tone when asked if he needs to be in tune with the possibility that defenders could start to distance themselves if things continue in the same direction.

"I can understand how that frustration can feel. It's part of it," Andrews said. "There are a lot of ups and down through the year, and we haven't been holding up our end of the bargain. We have to do a better job of that."

The offense has scored just three points in the past two games (the first time that's happened for a Patriots team since 1992), but even worse, it has had three turnovers returned for touchdowns, in addition to three other turnovers that led to 13 points.

That has put the defense in a tough spot, especially early in games.

"I would be lying if I said players don't feel some of that," linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said. "At the same time, us as coaches, it's our job to remind them we're not on that side of the ball. Let's continue to get them the ball and see what happens. That's pretty much how we approach it."

After losing the time-of-possession battle the past two games (39:34 to 20:26 and 35:09 to 24:51), the Patriots hope to reverse that trend when they visit the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS).

Players say they haven't sensed any fractures between the two units despite the recent struggles.

"I don't feel that from the defense at all," tight end Hunter Henry said. "This is a tight group. We have a great defense and we need to live up to what we do.

"We're together," insisted veteran cornerback Jonathan Jones. "We know we have good players and a good team. With all that being said, we all know it does us no good to be a good team and good players when you're not going out there and performing on Sundays."

"I think we have a good enough locker room and a bunch of veterans, a bunch of good guys with great attitudes, that I don't see us having that problem on this team," added veteran running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Coming off the worst two losses of Bill Belichick's coaching career, players were put through a grinding week in which Belichick had them on the practice field Tuesday instead of their normal day off, then in full pads Wednesday.

Belichick said his plan was to "start over," which had the team drilling fundamentals in practice as the offense tries to catch up to the defense.

"As the season goes on, there are a lot of ebbs and flows. What I try to relay to the defense is don't get discouraged. Go out and do your job," Mayo said. "I've been part of teams like this, trying to find out your identity, who you are. I think that's what Coach is talking about with hitting the reset button."

2. Malik magic? One notable change in practice last week, according to one person familiar with how the offensive coaching staff handled it, was giving undrafted rookie free agent Malik Cunningham more quarterback repetitions than the norm. Cunningham has primarily worked at receiver on the practice squad this season but has switched to QB on the scout team at times -- such as the week before facing the Saints when he played the role of dual threat Taysom Hill. Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien called him "probably one of the most improved practice squad players we have," which set the stage for the team to sign him to the roster on Saturday.

3. Same BB: Coming off the worst back-to-back losses in his coaching career, Belichick hasn't wavered behind the scenes. Defensive tackle Lawrence Guy Sr. is in his seventh season in New England and said, "Same guy, same thing, talking the same way. We have to stop beating ourselves."

4. Offensive stats: For some historical context on the Patriots' offensive struggles, consider the following, via ESPN Stats & Information:

Their 0.85 points per drive would be the worst by any team since 2006 (Raiders, 0.77).

Their past 34 drives failed to result in an offensive TD; their previous worst under Belichick was 24 straight (2020).

And 24 straight drives without a point scored is the longest single-season streak by any team since the 2008 Browns (31 straight).

5. Thornton's time: With receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Demario Douglas missing all of last week due to concussions, it highlighted the importance of 2022 second-round pick Tyquan Thornton's return from injured reserve (shoulder). The Patriots traded up for Thornton -- coveting his speed -- and they need more from him, as evidenced by how he has been outperformed by the three other receivers drafted after him.

Thornton (No. 50 overall draft pick): 13 games, 22 receptions, 247 yards, 2 TDs George Pickens, Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 52): 22 games, 74 receptions, 1,194 yards, 6 TDs Alec Pierce, Indianapolis Colts (No. 53): 21 games, 49 receptions, 717 yards, 2 TDs Skyy Moore, Kansas City Chiefs (No. 54): 22 games, 33 receptions, 395 yards, 1 TD

6. Slumping sophomores: It's too early to judge the Patriots' 2022 draft class, but there are concerning signs. Belichick often says players make their biggest jump in improvement in their second year, yet other than sixth-round defensive tackle Sam Roberts, who else could one currently point to who decisively falls into that category? Injuries to guard Cole Strange (first round/knee), Thornton, cornerback Marcus Jones (third round/torn labrum), cornerback Jack Jones (fourth round/hamstring) haven't helped.

7. They said it: "He kind of reminds me of myself as a player. When guys are kind of down, try to pick them up. When guys are up, you try to remain neutral and bring them back to reality. It absolutely stinks not having him on the field, but he'll be around the team." -- Mayo, the Patriots' linebackers coach, on Matthew Judon (torn lower right biceps) being lost indefinitely.

8. Communication check: The retirement of longtime Patriots captain Devin McCourty created a void in terms of communication, and Mayo credited safety Kyle Dugger for a "tremendous job" filling it alongside Jabrill Peppers. "Honestly, that was one of those things we didn't know. But communication isn't the problem," Mayo said, adding that lack of takeaways (two) tops the list of issues for the D, along with tightening up against big plays.

9. Missed opportunity? Belichick often says the team needs to coach and play better, and one possible coaching example came last week in electing not to challenge a would-be interception by Dugger in the third quarter. Belichick later relayed that he thought the ball hit the ground, but Dugger and other defenders believed it didn't. For a defense looking to start what it hopes is a run of turnovers, a closer look via challenge couldn't have hurt -- especially as the Saints hurried to get the next snap off.

10. Did you know? Belichick has won a game at 50 different stadiums, most of any coach in NFL history (Chiefs coach Andy Reid is second at 43). Belichick is 0-1 at Sunday's field, Allegiant Stadium, home of the Raiders.