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Penalties, short-yardage running headline Patriots' areas to improve

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Patriots' D deserves credit (1:58)

Stephen A. Smith breaks down the offensive struggles New England displayed against Tampa Bay, but praises the heavily-criticized defense for a solid performance. (1:58)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots win, the media coverage tends to be more positive. When they lose, the discussion is generally negative.

It’s a fine line, especially considering how two of the Patriots’ victories (vs. Houston and Tampa Bay) could have easily had a different result.

In the wake of Thursday night’s 19-14 triumph over the Buccaneers, here are a few areas that would likely be generating a lot more discussion if the result had been different:

Way too many penalties -- The Patriots were called for 12 accepted penalties, and more than half of them fall into the “bad football” category in the sense that they could have been avoided with better focus. Four of those penalties came on special teams -- an illegal block, holding on a punt return, a neutral-zone infraction, and a false start by long-snapper Joe Cardona. Of the penalties in general, coach Bill Belichick said, “We’ve had far too many. Whether it’s not being coached well enough, we have too many mistakes in that area. We can’t keep giving opportunities to good football teams."

Short-yardage running -- When the Patriots have needed a yard, their inability to pick it up consistently on the ground showed up again when Mike Gillislee was stopped on second-and-1 in the second quarter and had the Patriots passing on third-and-1. “Certainly, we’ve got to do better overall in that area. I need to do a better job of putting us in a great position to execute something that we feel really good about, and we’re going to work really hard moving forward on all those situational plays,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.

Complementary football -- When the Patriots are at their best, they are a finely tuned machine that has the offense, defense and special teams playing off each other. They almost had their best stretch of the season at the end of the second quarter, when the offense answered the Buccaneers’ first touchdown, special teams controlled field position on the ensuing kickoff (touchback), the defense stiffened (three-and-out), the Patriots responded with a 40-yard punt return (with an additional 15 yards for a Buccaneers penalty), and the offense drove to a field goal with 43 seconds remaining. After special teams held the Buccaneers to a short return to their 22, the defense committed back-to-back roughing-the-passer penalties and gave the Buccaneers a chance at a 56-yard field goal. That was a reminder that complementary football -- while there in short stretches -- isn't all the way where it needs to be.

Too many hits on Tom Brady -- There are multiple reasons for this, sparking the question of whether it is sustainable if Brady wants to make it to the end of the season healthy.

Getting off blocks vs. the run -- An area of relative strength through four games, Patriots defenders didn’t get off blocks as well as they have in prior weeks. That could have been a result of the quick turnaround for the game, as Lawrence Guy and Malcom Brown weren’t as sound in their two-gap technique against the Buccaneers. Bucs RB Doug Martin ran for 74 yards on 13 carries (5.7 YPC). Also, veteran Patriots defensive lineman Alan Branch was inactive for the game, as his play isn’t as consistent as it was in 2016. If Branch can return to prior form, it would be a big help.