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Patriots secondary passes a test

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff  November 19, 2012 10:52 AM

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The Patriots scored 59 points and amassed 484 yards of offense at Gillette Stadium on Sunday. They had an additional 283 yards on kick, punt and interception returns. And yet, the number 11 should stand out to you above all others.

And that has nothing to do with No. 11, Julian Edelman, who ran, caught and returned his way to 222 yards and two touchdowns.

Rather, it is the number of passes defended by the Patriots, a season high.

Sounds crazy, right? But on a day when opposing quarterback Andrew Luck passed for 334 yards and two touchdowns, let the record show that the Patriots much-maligned pass defense was, if nothing else, improved. Following an indisputable and disheartening pass interference call against Kyle Arrington on the game's first possession, the Patriots actually turned in arguably their best performance of the season.

All in all, Luck completed only 54 percent of his throws, the lowest number posted by any quarterback against the Patriots this season. Luck's quarterback rating of 63.3 also was the lowest against the Patriots this year. And all numbers aside, anyone who watched saw passing lanes and windows that were considerably tighter and smaller than they have been for much of the year.

"I thought our guys on defense did a good job," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters. "We got our hands on a lot of balls – we dropped a few, we caught some. I thought we were able to put some pressure on [Luck]. He’s active in the pocket and can avoid some pressure in there, but I thought we did a good job of getting on him.

"Their receivers made some really good catches. There were five or six times where I thought we were kind of draped all over them - and it didn’t seem there was much space at all to get the ball in - and he got it in and they caught it. ... They have a good group of skill players. They made some good throws and tough catches in there. I thought we had them covered pretty well but they still were able to execute it."

Nonetheless, so were the Patriots.

With regard to the New England pass defense, of course, everything is a matter of perspective. Against Buffalo in Week 10, the holes in the New England secondary were so porous that the Patriots made Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick look like Peyton Manning. Fitzpatrick completed 67.5 percent of his throws and posted a quarterback rating of 99.7 - and that was true despite his sloppy interception to Devin McCourty in the final seconds.

Undoubtedly, much will be made of interception returns made by Aqib Talib (59 yards for a touchdown) and Alfonzo Dennard (87 yards for a TD), but both interceptions required little or no effort on the part of the defender. On the first, Luck overthrew his receiver and hit Talib in the midsection. On the second, Luck threw perhaps his worst pass of the day and put the ball on a platter for Dennard, who merely caught it and scampered down the sideline.

But several other times through the course of the day, the Patriots batted down passes and generally closed up passing lanes, giving Luck relatively small windows. In the second quarter, on a second-and-10 play, Donta Hightower dropped into coverage and reached out to bat down a pass intended for Reggie Wayne. On the next play, Vince Wilfork batted down a Luck pass at the line. A short time later, with the Patriots holding a 21-14 lead, Colts wide receiver LaVon Brazill beat Talib down the right sideline, but Devin McCourty came over from his safety position and knocked the ball free for an incompletion, preventing a potential 25-yard gain that would have placed the ball inside the New England 5-yard line.

Instead of being in position for a touchdown, the Colts had to settle for a field goal to make it 21-17. They never got that close again.

Overall, was this game perfect? Of course not. But it was a major improvement over Week 10 and an improvement overall, particularly against a Colts offense that threw more passes against the Patriots than any other team this season. Luck took his shots down the field and completed some. But overall, the Patriots secondary held its own and made its share of plays.

Given the strength of the New England offense, this is all anybody could ask for in this day and age of the aerial attack, where the average NFL team completes 61.8 percent of its passes and throws for better than 250 yards a game. There is really no stopping the air game anymore. There is only the hope of containing it.

The impact of Talib on Sunday's developments certainly will be debated, though he was torched badly by T.Y. Hilton for a touchdown (and called for a penalty, no less) on a 43-yard strike that made it 45-24. Still, once Dennard replaced Arrington (after the first-quarter pass interference call), the Patriots pass defense had a more stable look than it has possessed all year, which is, admittedly, praise by default.

Whether this was the start of anything significant obviously remains to be seen, though the Patriots will get another chance to show improvement on Thursday against the New York Jets, who successfully threw against them in Week 7. After that, the Pats will face the vertically challenged Miami Dolphins on Dec. 2 before the highly anticipated back-to-back affairs with the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers, both regarded as contenders for the Super Bowl.

If the pass defense is as good or better then, then we may really have something to talk about.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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