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Bye week spent tackling Patriots' defensive issues

FOXBOROUGH -- During the Patriots' bye week, Bill Belichick sat down his defense and went over many of this season's plays.

He slowed down the tape on particularly poor efforts (from which there were plenty to choose), rewinding, replaying, and rewinding and replaying again. He used a red laser pointer to spotlight individuals who were out of position, blocked out of a play, or who simply missed a tackle.

It wasn't pretty.

''He was an equal-opportunity dotter," linebacker Chad Brown said. ''No one has played perfectly this season, so he spread the, I won't say love, but he spread his laser pointer around."

It is understandable that no defender was spared the coach's wrath, considering these distressing facts for the two-time defending Super Bowl champions, who are off to a 3-3 start:

The Patriots allow more yards on first down than all but one team.

They are last in defending the red zone (15 touchdowns and four field goals in 19 opportunities).

They have intercepted the fewest passes in the league (one).

They are next-to-last in fumbles recovered (two) and tied for last in forced turnovers.

Of the league's 32 teams, New England's defense is 26th in yards allowed, 28th in yards allowed per play, 25th in rushing yards allowed, 30th in yards allowed per pass play, and 28th in points surrendered.

That is why Belichick used the bye week to deliver the heart-to-heart.

''You've got to be realistic in this business," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. ''You've got to step up and say, 'I did not do this, I did do this, here's what I can improve on,' and move on.

''You have to take criticism, right on down the line. I think it starts with the head coach, saying, 'Listen, I did a terrible job with this.' And players, you've got to be able to say, 'Well, I didn't do this in this game and it probably cost us,' and you've got to move forward. You've got to be realistic about it and try to improve."

While many observers point to newcomers Brown and Monty Beisel, starters at inside linebacker, and cornerback Duane Starks as disappointing additions, there is no finger-pointing in the Patriots' locker room.

''Football is a team game," Brown said. ''Individually, you can have breakdowns, but if we all do our job as a team, we can make up for an individual breakdown here or there."

And good team defense is something the Patriots have yet to put together. The injury situation certainly has been an issue, with the defensive line looking average without Richard Seymour the past two games, linebacker depth taking a hit because of the Tedy Bruschi situation, and the secondary going through another year of extensive losses. Cornerback Tyrone Poole was placed on injured reserve yesterday.

All have contributed to the Patriots being a below-average defense.

''Our development as a group is not good," Vrabel said. ''You look at where we're at defensively and what we've done, and it's not good. That has nothing to do with new guys/old guys, it's got a lot to do with guys that have to play better, everybody."

Vrabel is second on the team with 38 tackles and has the lone interception.

''If I stood here and I had eight sacks and four picks, something like that, then I could say, 'Well, some other guys need to step up.' That's not the case," said Vrabel, who returned his interception for a touchdown. ''We all have to play better. We all realize that. We've got the guys in here that can do it. Guys have proven that they can do it."

Not all have proven they could do it in this system, however. Is that the problem? Linebackers are especially important in a 3-4 defense, and the Patriots have played all season with first-timers on the inside.

Bruschi's return after a stroke, which could happen Sunday night against Buffalo, gives the Patriots at least one experienced inside linebacker. Should he start, the shuffle may begin.

The first move is probably Brown to the bench, and possibly, though not necessarily likely, to backup outside linebacker.

Brown, who leads the team with 39 stops, said he is not sure when he'll be completely comfortable inside, where he moved after spending the majority of his career at outside linebacker. But he has seen few, if any, reps outside this week, though Belichick said yesterday that a move there is not out of the question.

''Chad has had some versatility throughout his career, so I'm sure that he would be able to do that," Belichick said.

When Bruschi is ready, the Patriots could go with Vrabel and Bruschi inside, moving Rosevelt Colvin into the starting lineup on the outside. Listed at 261 pounds, Vrabel brings more size than Beisel (238 pounds), which could help against the run. Only St. Louis bends more on first down than the Patriots' 6.4 yards per play, which is generally a sign of poor run defense.

Beisel, who described himself as the ''whipping boy" for all that has gone wrong with the defense in his first season in New England, has matched Vrabel with 38 tackles, despite coming off the bench in a limited role against Denver Oct. 16 because of a finger injury.

Vrabel spent a good portion of preseason practices at inside linebacker, a position the nine-year veteran had never played. But he injured an ankle early in the exhibition opener and was back on the outside when he returned a few weeks later. With Beisel ailing, Vrabel started inside against Denver.

''It wasn't bad," Vrabel said of the stint inside against the Broncos, a game in which he notched a career-high 13 tackles. ''It's still football. You have to get off a block and make a tackle.

''It was OK. It wasn't, I don't think, my best effort because we lost the game, but it wasn't bad."

Against the Broncos, the Patriots actually would have had one of their better efforts against the run this season, were it not for a 68-yard gallop by Tatum Bell against a defense that featured six defensive backs and only one true defensive lineman. Erase that burst, and the Patriots gave up just 110 yards rushing on 33 carries to a team that averages 158.7 yards a game, best in the AFC.

Vrabel says the Patriots have been an average team thus far this season, and it is time for that to change.

''We're running out of time," he said. ''We're 3-3 coming off a bye, we'll maybe get some guys coming back from injuries, and [we] play a division opponent at home. You can't ask for more than that."

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

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