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Going on the defensive

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  September 27, 2010 12:08 PM

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FOXBOROUGH -- It was former Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas who said that winning makes everything seem a little bit better -- food, car, significant other. If you're the Patriots you can scratch your defense off that list of victory-enhanced items.

Yesterday's 38-30 hold-your-nose win over the Buffalo Bills was a reminder that the Patriots' will only go as far as their fledgling defense will allow them to this season. Right now, the Patriots are like a Ferrari with bad brakes. They can go as fast as they want and look great doing it, but if they can't stop when they need and want to then they're bound to crash. And it won't be pretty.

There is only so much coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady can do to cover for the defense if they can't cover opposing receivers.

For all those people clamoring for Brady and the Patriots offense to do a better job of shielding the defense by possessing the ball here is a stat of note from yesterday's game. Time of possession in the second half was 21:01 for the Patriots to 8:59 for the Bills, and the game still came down to Buffalo's last possession.

You have to put the defense on the field some time. Those are the rules of the game.

Let's get one thing straight about the 2010 Patriots: quarterback play is not one of this team's major problems. Yes, Brady didn't produce against the Jets in Week 2. Yes, after the season-opener against Buffalo last season he failed to conjure up his usual magic in late and close games, but blaming Brady for this team's inability to close out games is the ultimate case of losing the forest in the trees.

In the grand gridiron scheme of things, Brady is the Patriots panacea and not part of the problem, which leads us back to the work-in-progress defense.

Through three games they've allowed 82 points, the most since Bill Belichick ushered in the Era of Good Feelings in Foxborough in 2000. They wake up today ranked 27th in the NFL in yards allowed per game (379.3) and 28th out of 32 teams in points allowed per game (27.3).

They haven't consistently stopped the run -- the Jets and Bills both topped 100 yards -- or the pass.

Following the first half of the season-opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, for which the Patriots had an entire offseason to game plan, Carson Palmer, Mark Sanchez and Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick have combined to complete 70.1 percent of their passes for 682 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions.

Sure, Sanchez (15 of 28 for 256 yards) lit up the Miami defense last night for three touchdowns passes, but that same Miami defense held the Bills to 10 points.

The most disconcerting part is that the Patriots haven't even played any of the elite quarterbacks yet. They have dates with San Diego's Philip Rivers and Minnesota's Brett Favre next month. They have back-to-back games against Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning in November. December brings a visit from Green Bay gunslinger Aaron Rodgers. That's not to mention some pretty good QBs like Baltimore's Joe Flacco, whom they'll face on Oct. 17, and Chicago's Jay Cutler.

The easy way to explain away the permeable defense to date is youth, injuries and inexperience.

Season-ending injuries to cornerback Leigh Bodden and defensive end Ty Warren didn't help the cause. Those are two key defenders against the pass and the run, respectively.

Three of the four members of the team's starting secondary are in their first or second season. That didn't change yesterday with Kyle Arrington, a sophomore corner, taking over for 2009 second-round pick Darius Butler. The Patriots are relying on rookie linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham to be regular contributors.

The problem with the youth/inexperience alibi is how do you then explain what's happening on the other side of the ball? The Patriots are relying on rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, who have emerged as instant impact additions. Second-year right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is a trusted starter. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has earned an increased role in his third season. Second-year receiver Brandon Tate has improved tremendously and has the trust of Brady.

History says a Belichick defense will be better in December than September, but is this defense capable of improving enough to get this team where it wants to go? Is it going to improve enough to do something last year's defense couldn't, which is slow down prolific passers and high-octane offenses?

Belichick's defensive genius is well-documented, but if you listen to linebacker and defensive captain Jerod Mayo there is not much more Belichick can do from a scheme standpoint. It's the players on the field that have to make the plays.

"We're young, but these guys are hungry and they're willing to learn. We have a great coach in coach Belichick, and he's putting us in positions, and we just have to execute better and make plays," said Mayo, following yesterday's game.

That's the scary part for the Patriots -- any improvement by this defense is going to have to come from within. The defense is what it is, to borrow a bromide. Either they have the right players or it's back to the drawing board -- and the draft board -- after this season.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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