FOXBORO — Kyle Dugger had a Troy Brown moment for the New England Patriots Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Dugger picked off a Baker Mayfield pass just inside the midfield stripe in Cleveland territory and returned the ball 47 yards to the 5-yard line in the second quarter to set up the go-ahead touchdown for the Patriots in their 45-7 rout of the Browns.
“When I turned my head around and saw the ball, I was like, 'bingo,' " Dugger said, reminiscent of former Patriot wide receiver Brown’s exclamation at the New England Super Bowl rally at City Hall Plaza.
That aerial theft resulted in the Patriots taking a 14-7 lead, the second of seven consecutive scores for New England and the team’s fourth straight victory. The interception was Dugger’s third of the season, the 14th by New England through 10 games.
“I would never put money against this defense,” Dugger said of the Patriots denying Cleveland points on eight consecutive series after a game-opening 84-yard TD drive.
“I think we will continue to get better as the season continues,” Dugger added. “I can’t really say how good or how far we can go, but I know we’re going to be good and keep improving.”
The Patriots were so dominating on defense that Cleveland netted just 91 run-pass yards by halftime and failed to convert any of four third-down situations.
By game’s end, the Browns had a paltry total of 217 yards of offense, converting just one of 11 third-down attempts. Mayfield completed just 11 passes for 73 yards (a paltry 56.2 rating) before leaving the field during the second half due to injury.
The Patriots’ 14 interceptions are tied for second in the NFL, along with the Dallas Cowboys, only one behind Buffalo. Last season, New England tied for the NFL lead with the Steelers, Saints and Dolphins with 15.
During the 2019 season, the Patriots led the NFL with 25 interceptions.
“We just kept grinding really,” Dugger said as the Patriots began their preparations for a Thursday-night game in Atlanta. “As far as the preparation, there was no difference,” he said of challenging the Browns as compared to previous weeks.
“We know we were making mistakes and we started to kind of correct some of those mistakes and grow together and kind of put things together as we should.
“The grind kind of stayed the same and now it’s just starting to show now.”
Dugger has been a prime part of the Patriots’ package in nickel coverage with Jalen Mills and J.C. Jackson as the cornerbacks.
New England ranks third defensively in the AFC and eighth overall in the NFL. The Patriots rank No. 8 in the NFL in pass defense, allowing an average of 220 yards per game.
“As you get more experience with your team and your players and how they all fit together, and then along with that, sometimes, you have some lineup changes,” Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick. “Whether that could be a player coming back, a player who is not in the lineup who was there earlier that you have to make adjustments, or some kind of compensation for. That’s all part of weekly coaching, game-planning in the NFL.
“That happens all the time, but you learn more about your team as you go further down the road. I think each year has its own dynamics. Each team develops its own unique way.”
Veteran safety Devin McCourty said, “The confidence all starts from practice. From walk-through and watching film together — that’s where you build your confidence to go out there and play. That’s why we were confident even after the first drive, giving up the seven points.
“We have enough guys, and we’re at a point in the season, that we know, first drive, whether it’s three-and-out, whether they go down and score, that’s not going to define the game.
“Because we know what we studied, we knew our game plan. We know how to go out and execute. That comes from the week. That comes from making mistakes in practice and fixing them. We just have to keep doing that.”
The rugged (6-foot-2, 220-pound) Dugger was a surprise second-round draft pick by the Patriots out of Lenoir-Rhyne last season. At the moment, Dugger leads the Patriots in tackles (59), having 45 first hits.
Dugger had the Patrots’ second-highest performance rating (91.2) Sunday with his interception and six tackles.
New England has allowed just one TD and 13 points over the past two games and now face a reeling four-win Falcon team.
“It’s great, we talk about complementary football all the time in the locker room,” Dugger said. “To see it work out when we get out there, it just makes you want to continue to put a foot on the gas and keep going harder. It’s really a big momentum thing for us, to be able to play like that.”