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Jackie MacMullan

Defensive foundation is solid

Email|Print| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / November 20, 2007

And now, a word about the defense.

It's easy to overlook these guys. As New England continues to roll over opponent after opponent, providing us all with a public service by obliterating the overrated concept of parity, the focus is on the sexier part of Patriot Games. The appeal of Tom Brady and Randy Moss is undeniable, a guilty pleasure, like extra hot fudge and whipped cream on a sundae already piled to the ceiling with confections.

But there would be no sundae without a base of vanilla ice cream, which holds the darn thing together and keeps it from running amok (see: the dribbly, gooey, defenseless mess known as the Cincinnati Bengals).

New England's defense is the foundation of this team. Always has been, always will be. It would be a disservice to equate them to vanilla, because they have a certain pizzazz all their own. Let's call them rocky road - an ice cream with an edge, loaded with flavor and little hidden surprises that are pleasing to the football palate.

Here's one thing that's been constant with this defense: They set the tone by preventing opponents from scoring on the opening drive. It has been 10 weeks now and not one team has found the end zone on its maiden offensive series. The Patriots are the only team that can claim this distinction.

Opponents wearily point to the same characteristic week in and week out: versatility. When Indianapolis was in the midst of its preparation for New England in the biggest regular-season game of the past decade, do you think it ever occurred to the Colts to focus on exploiting a nickel defense? Why would it? The Patriots under Belichick are a team that traditionally sets up in a 3-4 alignment. And yet, in the biggest game of the year, New England completely altered its strategy. It was a risky gamble, but it paid off because the Patriots have the personnel who are intelligent enough and versatile enough to adjust on the fly.

They mixed it up again Sunday against Buffalo, sprinkling in a 4-3 alignment and bringing Adalius Thomas in from the edge to pressure J.P. Losman. Buffalo's young QB was sacked four times (2 1/2 by Thomas).

"You can watch them on film and you can watch them on tape as much as you want," said Losman with a sigh, "but every game they are going to do something new. They are going to find out what you are doing and counter it - and I'm talking about on the next series."

Buffalo managed one touchdown Sunday, and that was set up by a fluke play. Losman was looking at second and 10 from his 41 when Jarvis Green began pursuing him, pinning him in. Green stripped the ball but Losman was able to scoop it up, retreat, then toss it up to Michael Gaines, who made an acrobatic one-handed catch on the broken play to secure a first down inside New England territory. Two plays later, Losman connected with Roscoe Parrish on a 47-yard bomb over Ellis Hobbs.

The only other offense the Bills could muster was a 52-yard field goal by Rian Lindell.

You would be wise not to put too much stock in the Bills' inability to score against this defense, since they came into the game as the 31st-ranked offense in the NFL. But New England has held powerhouses such as San Diego (14 points), Cincinnati (13), and Indianapolis (20) at bay, too.

I've often maintained there are two indispensable players on the Patriots: Brady and All-Pro defensive end Richard Seymour. I'll stick with Brady as irreplaceable, and there's no doubt Seymour's presence on this defense is a tremendous asset, but he missed seven games and the team did not break stride. We've long ago identified Rodney Harrison as the heart of the defense, yet the team soldiered on without him, too, for four games - outings in which both Harrison and Seymour were sidelined.

The Patriots are able to maintain because they've systematically built up depth at most positions. The Colts, who remain this team's AFC barometer, had to overspend for so much top-flight talent that they didn't leave themselves enough petty cash to provide the kind of defensive depth that is so crucial in a league where significant injuries are guaranteed to affect every franchise. Thus, when Dwight Freeney is lost for the year, it is a blow that may prove fatal to Peyton Manning and his arsenal.

New England can hold its own without Seymour for a time, in part because Green is a team guy who knows the system inside and out, and also because Ty Warren and Vincent Wilfork have come into their own as Pro Bowl-caliber defenders who can anchor the line.

Likewise, a veteran linebacker corps that boasts the league leader in sacks, Mike Vrabel (he's tied with Jared Allen of the Chiefs with 9 1/2), can afford to allow him to play a limited role, as he did against Buffalo because of a shoulder injury, and still keep Losman under constant pressure. As a group, the Patriots have recorded 29 sacks for a loss of 220 yards.

In the secondary, Harrison has tutored James Sanders well, and Sanders has developed into an able fill-in. Asante Samuel may not pick off 10 passes as he did in 2006, but he still has four interceptions and is among the top 10 in the league in that category. Randall Gay has three picks of his own. Has anyone noticed Eugene Wilson is hurt again and has missed a slew of games? Didn't think so.

The Patriots' secondary gives up an average of 181.3 yards a game, but the more crucial statistic is third-down conversions. Teams succeed only 31.2 percent of the time on third down (34 of 109), compared with Brady and his merry band of receivers, who are converting at a 52.3 percent rate.

They aren't as glamorous as Moss and Brady and Laurence Maroney, but the guys on defense know the drill. The hot fudge needs ice cream.

Especially the kind that always stays cool.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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