Statement game: They are coming to their own defense
FOXBOROUGH - Admit it, you didn’t have faith in the Patriots’ defense entering this season.
The prevailing wisdom was that Tom Brady and the offense were going to have to carry an overhauled and overwhelmed defense that was without Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, and an identity. Four weeks into the season, the Patriots’ defense has its identity - it’s better than you think.
Yesterday, the Baltimore Ravens came to Gillette Stadium with the second-rated offense in the NFL. Behind second-year quarterback Joe Flacco, Baltimore had rung up 38, 31, and 34 points in its first three games without the benefit of a defensive touchdown.
The Patriots’ defense held the Ravens to 14 offensive points and held fast in the fourth quarter, stopping Baltimore twice on fourth down to help the Patriots score a 27-21 victory and knock off an undefeated team for the second straight week. New England’s defense wasn’t suffocating, but it was sufficient enough to outplay Baltimore’s ballyhooed defense and hold Flacco (27 of 47, 264 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) below 60 percent passing for the first time this season.
Flacco, who had been sacked three times in three games, was sacked twice (both by Mike Wright) and was also intercepted at the New England 9 in the second quarter by cornerback Leigh Bodden, who came up with New England’s first interception of the season in spectacular fashion, dragging his feet like a wide receiver to stay in bounds and snuff out a scoring opportunity.
The knock on the Patriots’ defense was that it had been hiding behind the offense’s time of possession, preventing the defense from being overexposed. While the Patriots once again won the time of possession tug of war (34:56 to 25:04), the Ravens actually ran more offensive plays (66-65).
That should have answered any lingering questions about whether the defense is the weak link.
“Nah, people are still going to look at us as the biggest question mark on the team,’’ said safety Brandon Meriweather. “You got Tom Brady at quarterback. What did you expect? You tell me where the question mark has got to be.’’
Not on defense, not anymore.
Few noticed that heading into yesterday’s game, the Patriots’ defense was actually rated one spot ahead of the Ray Lewis-led Ravens defense at sixth best in the NFL, despite only having the services of its best player, linebacker Jerod Mayo, for less than quarter.
Few had noticed the Patriots’ defense at all.
That’s OK with them. They’ll keep holding teams down while not holding their breath for the respect that should come to a defense that hasn’t allowed an opposing offense to score more than 17 points.
“Hopefully we’ll start getting people to talk about us a little bit, but I doubt it,’’ said Meriweather, who led the Patriots with nine tackles. “It’s OK. We like to be under the radar.’’
This was a statement game and the Patriots’ defense declared itself to be among the NFL’s most effective. Let other defenses, such as the Jets’ and Ravens’, brag about their prowess. New England’s no-name defense will let its play speak for itself.
“We can stay under the radar,’’ said Bodden. “It doesn’t matter. We’re just a good defense that is going to go out there and play. We don’t care about getting the glory or anything like that. We want to get wins, and that is all that matters at the end of the day.’’
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and the Patriots were both in the fourth quarter against the Ravens, who came in averaging 430.3 yards per game on offense and racked up 363 total yards - including 17 rushes for 116 yards - becoming the first team this season to crack 300 against New England.
Leading, 27-21, with 5:51 to go, the Patriots stopped Baltimore on third and 1 and fourth and 1 from the Baltimore 45. On the first, Ty Warren knifed in to stop Ray Rice. On the second, Gary Guyton and Brandon McGowan stonewalled Willis McGahee.
Baltimore got the ball back with 3:32 to go and drove from its 20 to the New England 14, but on fourth and 4, Ravens wide receiver Mark Clayton dropped a ball that would have extended the drive, and it was game over.
“It came down to us, the defense,’’ said cornerback Shawn Springs. “We’re asked to sometimes put it on our shoulders and we had the chance to stop them. Today, we did it.’’
It didn’t initially look like it would be a day for the Patriots’ defense to be proud of. Baltimore took the lead, 7-3, on its first drive on a Derrick Mason 20-yard touchdown grab that capped a 15-play, 81-yard drive that chewed up 6:35.
The Ravens had 86 yards on their initial possession - it was an 81-yard drive, but Flacco had a 5-yard delay of game penalty. Mason had six receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown on Baltimore’s first touch, then was shut out the rest of the half. He didn’t catch another ball until the fourth quarter and finished with seven receptions for 88 yards.
By now, the members of the Patriots’ defense are used to defending themselves.
“We just got to keep proving whoever wrong, whoever is doubting us we got to prove them wrong, and we’ve been doing it so far,’’ said Bodden. “We have a lot of games to go, and we’re going to just continue to play our defense out there and just continue to get better.’’
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.