THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Defense is deserving of 2d look

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / September 30, 2009

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The focus so far has been on whom - defensive stalwarts Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, and Richard Seymour - and what - an offense as explosive as the record-setting 2007 version - the Patriots don’t have.

That captious fixation on past players and the team’s inability to get past the goal line has obscured what the Patriots currently present opponents with: one of the best defenses in the NFL.

New England’s defense might not have the swagger, accolades, or big names of the New York Jets’ or this week’s foe, the Ray Lewis-led Baltimore Ravens’, but statistically speaking, the Patriots have had one of the most miserly defenses in the NFL this season.

The Patriots are one of only three teams that rank in the top 10 in scor ing defense (tied for seventh, 16.7 points per game), total defense (sixth, 262.3 yards per game), rush defense (10th, 88.3 yards per game), and pass defense (sixth, 174 yards per game). The other two teams are the Denver Broncos, who lead the league in both points allowed (5.3 points per game) and total defense (214.7 yards per game), and the Jets, who rank second in points per game (11) and third in total defense (256).

The Patriots defense was supposed to be the weak link this season, but their offensive teammates knew otherwise.

“I don’t think anyone outside of our locker room had faith in them. We believed in them because we’d go against them every day at practice, and we know what they can do,’’ said left guard Logan Mankins. “We believed in them, and they’ve done a good job so far.’’

Even more impressive is that New England has played this type of defense without its best defensive player, linebacker Jerod Mayo, who sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the first quarter of the first game of the season. He has been replaced at middle linebacker by Gary Guyton.

No Mayo, no Bruschi, no Harrison, no Vrabel, no Seymour, no dropoff.

No team has been able to top 300 yards of total offense against the Patriots and no offense has scored more than 17 points - the Buffalo Bills, who scored 24 points, benefited from a defensive score.

You could nitpick and say the Patriots don’t look dominating or they have to do a better job of rushing the passer or point out they have no interceptions, but if anybody knows about great Patriots defenses, it’s Bruschi and he offered his imprimatur.

“The bottom line is you can talk about all the stats you want, but the bottom line is how many points are they giving up and how many yards are they giving up, really,’’ said Bruschi, who retired in August and is now an analyst for ESPN. “They’ve held three teams under 300 yards of offense, and that’s really all you can ask of them for right now.’’

The defense will be tested this Sunday by the Ravens. While Baltimore has a reputation for ravenous defense, it’s the offense that has eaten up opponents this season behind second-year signal-caller Joe Flacco. The Ravens rank second in the NFL in total offense (430 yards per game) and second in scoring at 34.3 ppg.

Baltimore has produced 10 TDs in 14 trips inside the 20-yard line, a 71.4 percent conversion rate. The Patriots defense has allowed four touchdowns in seven red zone opportunities.

The key to the Patriots’ defensive success this season has been getting off the field on third down, which was a major issue in 2008, when the team ranked 26th, allowing opponents to convert 44.4 percent of third downs. This season, the Patriots rank seventh, allowing opponents to convert just 30 percent of third downs (9 for 30). Atlanta was just 2 of 9 Sunday, including 0 for 4 in the second half.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said the defense isn’t playing different schemes on third down, just playing them better.

Bruschi said the third-down success may be attributable to the emphasis Bill Belichick put on man-to-man coverage during training camp. Against the Falcons, Belichick said the Patriots didn’t provide corners Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs with a lot of help in coverage.

“They haven’t been a real pressure defense. They haven’t gone after passers, and you haven’t noticed a quarterback being uneasy back there because of the pressure, so I think maybe they’re a little bit tighter in their man-to-man coverage,’’ said Bruschi, when asked to explain the Patriots’ third-down success.

“That’s something they worked on very hard in training camp, was playing man-to-man. That’s what they’re going to have to do to win. That’s what Bill told them all training camp. They’ve been working on that and I think they’re doing a better job of it.’’

Part of winning third down is winning first down. The Patriots are allowing only 4.48 yards per play on first down, fifth-best in the NFL.

Doubt the defense if you want, but the numbers aren’t an accident.

“Me being with them in training camp, I know what kind of players they have,’’ said Bruschi. “I really anticipated Gary doing well at the inside [linebacker] when Jerod went down. I knew that if adjustments needed to be made they would be made and they would be executed well. I’m confident in what the players can do for this team.’’

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