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Tackling the shortcomings

Patriot defense is a hit again

FOXBOROUGH -- There is no good without bad. And in order to truly appreciate how good the Patriots' defense has been this season, how far it's come, and how vastly improved it is, you first must comprehend just how bad it was in 2002.

Thing is, our level of comprehension is slightly lower than that of Bill Belichick. You're talking about a guy who has high standards, who's used to watching defenses he coordinates dominate, who's straight-up spoiled. He's personally offended when an offense has its way with his defense. The playoffs would have been nice, sure, but Belichick probably couldn't wait to get back to the drawing board with a unit that was next-to-last in run defense, 26th in third-down defense, and 23d in total defense.

Asked yesterday, hours after his team shut out the Cowboys, 12-0, at Gillette Stadium before a national television audience, to compare this edition of New England's defense to the previous one, Belichick likened the difference to that between "night and day."

"Last year, we weren't any good at anything," said Belichick, able to offer a more frank assessment now that he doesn't have to consider anyone's feelings. "We really weren't. This year, we at least have some strengths that we can try to build off of. Last year, [we] would be hard pressed to find a strength, defensively, that we had."

Not only is the '03 `D' strong, it's the strength of a team that leads the AFC East at 8-2 and has won six straight. The Patriots defend the run better than all but five teams in the league. They're fourth in third-down defense. They're tied for 11th with Miami in overall defense. Only the Dolphins and Cowboys allow fewer points per game.

New England allowed fewer than the Cowboys when it counted, though. Sunday night the Patriots shut out an opponent for the first time since a 31-0 defeat of Arizona Sept. 15, 1996, at Foxboro Stadium -- a span of 128 games (including playoffs). They held Quincy Carter to a 38.0 quarterback rating and Dallas to 3 yards per carry. They forced three turnovers and turned the Cowboys away twice in the red zone. Since we're talking about it, the Patriots are fourth in the league in red zone defense.

Four of the past five Patriots opponents have scored 13 points or fewer.

Ty Law made arguably the biggest play of the game in the third quarter with New England leading, 9-0, when he intercepted Carter's pass intended for Jason Witten. On first and 10 from the Patriots' 19-yard line, Bobby Hamilton and Willie McGinest pressured Carter on a bootleg, and the young quarterback forced a pass to the rookie tight end. Witten couldn't hold on, and Law came up with the deflection.

First runner-up goes to Tedy Bruschi, who stuffed Troy Hambrick for a 2-yard loss on fourth and 1 from midfield with 9:21 remaining and the score still 9-0. Tyrone Poole ended Dallas's next possession with an interception of a Carter pass intended for Terry Glenn (one catch, 8 yards), setting up Adam Vinatieri's second field goal.

"I thought that we got a lot of good play out of a lot of people," Belichick said. "Any time you hold a team without any points in this league, you have more than one guy playing well. I thought all three segments of the defense -- the line, the linebackers, and the secondary -- played solidly."

Jell-O was solid compared to last year's defense. How'd it harden in one offseason? "We're playing better," Belichick said.

Oh. "We're executing better. We've changed some things around defensively. Starting with me, we're maybe coaching a little bit better. I don't think the coaching last year was great. I've said that many times before. We addressed some things in the offseason. I think the players are, collectively, playing better. Individually, some of them are playing better, but collectively they're playing better as a unit."

Perhaps most pleasing to Belichick is that his team is winning on third down. Opponents convert 31.7 percent of their third downs, compared to 43 percent a year ago.

"Who did we make punt last year?" Belichick said. "There were games where they never punted."

That's an exaggeration. No opponent went without punting, for goodness' sake. It just seemed that way to Belichick.

"One or two times," he said, "there were plenty of those games."

Not quite. There were only two games where opponents punted twice (Denver, Minnesota).

"How many punts did [Dallas] have last night? Seven, eight?"

Seven.

"At least, looking at some of the games, at least you see the punter out there on the field," Belichick said. "Defensively, that's good. Now, we had some turnovers last year, defensively, which was one of the ways we held some opponents down and could at least get off the field. But in terms of actually being able to stop anybody, at least we've shown the ability this year to go out there on the field and be able to make some plays and be able to stop the other team and get off the field and make the punter come out there."

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afc east standings
  W L T Pct. PF PA
Patriots 8 2 0 .800 19.6 15.5
Dolphins 6 4 0 .600 17.7 14.7
Bills 4 6 0 .400 15.9 17.0
Jets 3 7 0 .300 19.7 21.1
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