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They adjust at just the right time

Email|Print| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / January 3, 2008

It all depends on the viewpoint.

One view looks solely at the bottom line. The Patriots entered their regular-season finale against the Giants tied for the fewest points allowed in the NFL, then proceeded to surrender a season-high 35 - 28 coming on defense and 7 on special teams.

The other view focuses less on the result and more on the process - mainly how the Patriots stabilized a leaky situation. Having given up 28 points in the first 36 minutes, they closed ranks in crunch time, with the Giants held to only a late touchdown over their final four possessions.

A spotty performance by the defense?

A case of masterful adjusting?

Former NFL coach Dan Reeves chooses the latter.

Reeves watched last Saturday night's game and, in his role as a radio analyst for Westwood One, was present two weeks prior when the Patriots defeated the Jets at Gillette Stadium. He mildly understands why some might be questioning the Patriots' defense entering the playoffs, but believes those doubters are missing a more important point.

Yes, the defense struggled at times against the Giants, but Reeves sees that as secondary to what he believes defines the unit - the ability to recover.

"That's the thing that they do better than anybody I know of in the National Football League - make adjustments," Reeves said yesterday. "If you look at the game against the Giants, the thing that's impressive is that they weren't having much success stopping them, and all of a sudden they started coming at Eli [Manning] with pressure. They have a game plan going in, but if you have success they don't hesitate to make the change. They're such a veteran unit that they can pull it off. I think that's the most impressive thing about them."

That's certainly a glass-half-full viewpoint, one that didn't seem to be on the mind of Patriots coach Bill Belichick earlier this week when he said a performance that yields 35 points was "not where you want to be."

While the adjustments were impressive - the main change seemed to be sending six rushers at Manning on passing downs - there were also some significant breakdowns at various points.

The Giants were 6 for 10 on third down, and 4 for 4 scoring touchdowns in the red zone, meaning they won the critical situations the Patriots pride themselves on owning. Schematically, the Patriots had their share of problems in every personnel package they employed.

The defense was in its base 3-4 alignment on the Giants' opening touchdown march, the big play coming on a 52-yard catch by Plaxico Burress, with cornerback Ellis Hobbs in coverage.

The Patriots mixed in some nickel (five defensive backs) looks on the Giants' final drive of the first half, but it was carved up on an 85-yard touchdown march that lasted just 1:46.

And when the Patriots called on their dime (six defensive backs) package on third down, the Giants sliced through it with relative ease. The Giants' opening touchdown of the second half - a 19-yard pass to Burress - came against a dime look that featured defensive backs Asante Samuel, Hobbs, Rodney Harrison, Randall Gay, Eugene Wilson, and rookie Brandon Meriweather.

So, whether it was the base 3-4, the nickel, or the dime, the Patriots were not sharp. And some credit certainly goes to the Giants.

Yet while noting there were holes to be exploited at times, Reeves believes any opponent that sees the Patriots' defense as vulnerable is mistaken.

"If they think that way, they're going to be in serious trouble," he said. "Any time you have a defense that can adjust the way they do, it creates a lot of problems. They did the same thing against Indianapolis. Remember how well Indy was running the ball early in that game? All of a sudden in the second half, New England had adjusted. So you can have some success but they do a great job of seeing what you're doing and trying to make you do something else."

The Colts had 84 yards on 18 carries in the first half of the Nov. 4 game against the Patriots, but managed just 35 yards on 13 carries in the second half.

If Reeves was preparing to face the Patriots, he said his top priority would be to establish the run in an attempt to dictate tempo. The challenge, however, is penetrating through what he feels is a top-notch defensive line.

Most of all, Reeves would enter the game prepared to alter course quickly because he believes that's the true identity of the Patriots' defense. So, while some might see the defense as vulnerable entering the playoffs, Reeves takes the viewpoint that the unit's ability to adjust on the fly trumps all.

"Even if you have a plan, you have to be ready to change because they're going to make adjustments, and they make them almost every series," he said. "You may hurt them somewhere else, but they're going to find a way to take away something you just hurt them with."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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