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Patriots still need to get defensive

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  September 19, 2011 01:39 PM

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Prior to yesterday, the last time the Patriots played a game that counted in front of the homefolk at Gillette Stadium was the distasteful and disheartening playoff loss to those heretical New York Jets, a defeat that shook Fort Foxborough to its foundation.

The result was a shift in defensive alignment and philosophy, the importation of Albert Haynesworth, and the football consummation of the bromance between Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Chad Ochocinco. Nine months later, has anything really changed?

While the Patriots bask in the warm glow of a 2-0 start and 73 points and 1,126 yards of offense, lurking in the shadows is the fear that after all the cosmetic changes at their core they're still the same team that got sent home early by the jabbering Jets.

Two weeks is not a valid sample size, but it's all we have to go on right now, and this team looks like the spitting image of the 2010 squad, which is encouraging because that team went 14-2 and disconcerting because of how its flaws were exposed in the playoffs.

Like last season, the Patriots still have a prolific offense fueled by Tom Brady playing quarterback at an unconscionable level (940 yards passing, 71.6 completion percentage, and seven touchdowns in two games). They also still have a defense that must prove it can win a defensive dogfight and allows so much travel through the air it should charge opponents baggage fees.

We've seen this movie before and the ending isn't enjoyable.

"The offense had a great game. Our stop on fourth down was huge for us, but we would still like to have more out of the defense," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich. "We still have to improve. We still have some things to work on. I'm happy for the win, and the team played great in all phases. We still have to work though."

Whether it's aligned in a 3-4, a 4-3, the 4-2-5 nickel package or lined up single-file by last name, the Patriots defense is still displaying the same hangups -- consistently pressuring the passer and getting exploited aerially, as evidenced by them allowing 794 yards passing in the first two games.

Before you dismiss Chad Henne's season-opening 416-yard performance as statistical fluff, know that even if the final two Miami drives are subtracted, Henne still would have finished 22 of 36 for 314 yards. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was 29 of 40 for 378 yards and two scores yesterday.

Not good.

Making matters worse is that cornerback Devin McCourty appears to have regressed from his Pro Bowl form as a rookie. That's scary considering the Patriots were 30th against the pass last season with him playing like a Pro Bowler.

It also might be a good idea for someone at Patriot Place to reset the alarm clock of Haynesworth, who referred to himself as a "sleeping giant" before the first game. Instead of dominant, he was dormant yesterday. Conspicuously absent from the final gamebook, he was not credited with a single tackle.

Like last year, this defense's deliverance is that it makes timely plays (see yesterday's fourth-and-goal stuff of Mike Tolbert by Jerod Mayo) and generates enough turnovers to cover for its deficiencies.

The Chargers were 10 of 12 on third-down conversions and breached New England territory on eight of their nine drives, but they turned the ball over four times, leaving them to ponder what might have been on a long cross-country flight home.

"I think we just stopped ourselves," said Chargers running back Ryan Mathews, who had 12 rushes for 64 yards and seven receptions for 62 yards.

That's overstating it. San Diego is prone to self-inflicted wounds, but Vince Wilfork's interception was a brilliant display of athleticism and improvisation. How many nose tackles make that play? And Sergio Brown's interception of Rivers in the third quarter was a stellar play by the second-year safety, considering he was locked in one-on-one coverage with Antonio Gates, who was held catchless by a tremendous Belichick game plan.

But that old bromide about the best defense being a good offense is still true with the Patriots, and that has to change. It was the offense that did what the defense couldn't -- put the game away.

The Patriots led by 14 (28-14) with 8:40 left after Brady's fourth touchdown toss and second to Rob Gronkowski. Instead of turning out the lights on the Chargers, the defense gave them guide lighting to the end zone. It took three minutes for the Chargers to go 80 yards and make it a seven-point game, thanks to a 26-yard parabola of a pass from Rivers that Vincent Jackson grabbed with three New England defenders nearby.

It was left to the offense to end it with its own 80-yard march, delivering the Floyd Mayweather Jr. haymaker when BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who rolled up 45 of his 70 yards in the fourth quarter, scored on a 16-yard touchdown run.

That the offense knows how to close is not a coincidence, because almost all of the institutional knowledge of winning is on that side of the ball. Brady, Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Deion Branch, Wes Welker, injured center Dan Koppen and temporarily mothballed running back Kevin Faulk have all reached Super Bowls as Patriots.

On defense, there is just one defender who knows the feeling of winning a playoff game as a Patriot -- Wilfork. Think about that for a second. One player on the current defense has won a playoff game as a Patriot.

The offense is a work of art -- watching Brady dissect defenses is like watching Michaelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel one brushstroke at a time -- and the defense is a work in progress.

But there is going to come a time this season, as there did last, when the Patriots can't rely simply on Brady to bail them out, a juncture when the defense has to rise up and save the day.

If they can't then nothing will have really changed in Foxborough, including the eventual ending.

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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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