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Patriots hope to bag their share of sacks

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / September 30, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Give Richard Seymour credit for being honest. When the Patriots defensive end was asked yesterday if he had any memories of the brief stint on the Patriots practice squad that current San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan enjoyed in 2006, Seymour responded with a simple, "No."

"Hopefully, we'll be reacquainted," Seymour said with a mischievous smile.

A reunion with O'Sullivan in the 49ers' backfield Sunday at Candlestick Park would suit Seymour and his defensive teammates just fine. San Francisco, which has given up a league-high 19 sacks in its first four games, might be just the prescription for a Patriots pass rush that after a four-sack performance in the season opener has mustered just two sacks in its last two games and ranks tied for 22d in the NFL with six. That's a far cry from the potent pass rush of last season, when the Patriots collected 47 sacks to lead the AFC and finish second in the NFL to the Giants.

While Patriots coach Bill Belichick waxes poetic about the offensive brilliance of the schemes of Mike Martz, who is now the 49ers offensive coordinator, all of Martz's creativity in the passing game not only puts pressure on opposing defenses, but on his offensive line.

O'Sullivan was sacked six times Sunday in a 31-17 loss to the Saints. San Francisco's surfeit of sacks isn't a surprise considering what Martz's offenses did the last two seasons, when he was in Detroit as offensive coordinator of the Lions.

Last year, Detroit quarterbacks were sacked 54 times, ranking third in the league, behind only the 49ers and the Chiefs, who each gave up 55.

In 2006, Detroit surrendered 63 sacks, second-most in the league, including five in a 28-21 Patriots win at Gillette Stadium.

"They throw a lot of downfield routes. They throw deep in-cuts [and] deep comebacks. Sometimes they have a lot of receivers out, so occasionally their protection breaks down on that," said Belichick. "But they attack the defense at all three levels - the short, intermediate, and deep level. They do it every week on a consistent basis, so you have to be ready to defend it. Sometimes you get to [the quarterback] before they get it off, but a lot of times you don't, and they hit a lot of 20-, 25-, 30-yard completions, a lot more than most teams do. That's the way they have been historically.

"It takes a little longer for those plays to develop. I think overall their pass protection has been good. I think the line has done a good job. Overall, their pass protection hasn't been bad. Like any line it has broken down from time to time, but they have done a good job."

The Patriots' leading sackers after three games are outside linebackers Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel with two apiece. Seymour has one, and the other belongs to cornerback Ellis Hobbs. While New England has only played three games, so have the Giants, who have 13 sacks.

In their 38-13 loss to Miami, the Patriots didn't even dirty the uniform of Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington, registering no sacks and not being credited with a single quarterback hit.

Seymour said the Patriots' failure to stop Ronnie Brown and the Miami running game was one of the reasons they couldn't apply any heat to Pennington.

"They didn't have to pass the ball much," said Seymour. "After you get up, you run the ball, so we didn't really have many opportunities to have a lot of sacks because when they got up on us it wasn't like we were matching them point for point. They were scoring touchdowns and we were kicking field goals, and at the end of the day that just isn't going to add up.

"We have to do a better job of keeping the other team out of the end zone and putting them in passing situations. In years prior, we were able to get off to a good start defensively and we were able to put up a lot of points, so teams had to throw to stay in the game. If they get off to an early start and we get behind, the [pass-rushing] opportunities, they're not going to be there."

Seymour said that to get after O'Sullivan this week the Patriots actually have to first focus on stopping the run, which means slowing down running back Frank Gore.

"Well, obviously, any defensive player that's the ultimate - to get sacks on the quarterback," said Seymour. "That's what we want to do, but we have to get them in those situations. We have to put them in situations where we can go after the quarterback and pin our ears back and kind of just let loose, but early in the game we got to be able to stop No. 21 [Gore]."

If the Patriots' 3-4 defense can't put pressure on O'Sullivan with the front seven, then Belichick and defensive coordinator Dean Pees always could counter Martz's creativity with some of their own in the form of blitz schemes.

The Patriots have arguably the best blitzing safety of all-time in Rodney Harrison, who is the NFL's career leader in sacks by a defensive back with 30.5.

However, Harrison said that in the end, getting to the quarterback usually comes down to desire and execution, not deception.

"I'm sure each week you're going to have opportunities," he said. "It's just a matter of beating their guys mano a mano and getting to the quarterback. However you scheme it up, that's up to the coaches, but it's up to us to cover in the back end and it's up to the guys up front that are rushing the quarterback to get there."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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