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Patriots come to the defense

Belichick receives support of players

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / November 20, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - At this time last year, Tedy Bruschi was a leader on the Patriots defense. This week, in an indirect way, he may have sped the passing of those duties to linebacker Jerod Mayo, already a captain in his second season.

Bruschi, now an ESPN analyst, criticized Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth and 2 from his 28 in Sunday’s game against the Colts because, he said, as a former defensive player, it would have “been enough to make my blood boil.’’

Yesterday, Mayo further asserted himself as the team’s defensive leader by offering the strongest rebuke yet by a Patriots player of the sentiment Bruschi championed.

“I have the ultimate respect for Tedy and everything he’s done for this organization,’’ said Mayo, “but he’s not in this locker room at this point in time, so he doesn’t know the feeling that this defense or this team has.

“We still have our confidence, we still have our swagger, and we’re gonna go out Sunday and show the media, I guess.’’

Patriots defensive players have insisted that their confidence was not challenged by Belichick’s decision, but mostly by brushing away questions. Mayo, like cornerback Leigh Bodden after the game, strongly stated that Belichick’s call only reinforced his esteem.

“We looked at it as a challenge,’’ Mayo said. “People say that it was a lack of confidence in us, but we looked at it as a challenge and we looked at it as Coach having enough confidence in us to give us a short field. Unfortunately we were unable to step up to the challenge and get the job done.’’

Players like Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Rodney Harrison once ensured that the Patriots would move forward after dispiriting moments. Into that void has stepped Mayo. Already, he makes the calls in the defensive huddle and walks to the center of the field for the coin toss. This week, as the Patriots press toward Sunday’s divisional game against the Jets, Mayo was more vocal than is typical for him.

“Any time you give up 35 points in a game, you try to come back strong the next game,’’ Mayo said. “And hopefully we do that this week.’’

Perhaps more than any other defensive player, second-year cornerback Jonathan Wilhite will have to leave Sunday night behind him. While Colts receiver Reggie Wayne leaped into the stands after has last-minute touchdown, Wilhite skulked away. He had been inches from breaking up the Peyton Manning pass Wayne snared.

Wilhite had been matched against Wayne for most of the game, during which Wayne caught 10 passes for 126 yards. But the play that stuck with Wilhite most, the one that he replayed in his head on the plane ride home, was the final one.

“You wouldn’t be a football player if you didn’t think about it,’’ Wilhite said. “But Wayne made a good catch. Peyton made a good throw. It happens in football.’’

Wayne leaned to the outside and took one step to the corner. Wilhite shuffled, dropping his right foot back. At the moment Wilhite took another step with his left foot, trying to wall Wayne to the outside, Wayne planted and cut to the middle.

Wilhite pivoted, now behind Wayne. Wayne had the advantage, but in two quick steps, as Manning released the ball, Wilhite had caught up. His left arm on Wayne’s back, Wilhite lunged for the pass. Manning had thrown the ball so Wayne had to fully stretch his arms. Wilhite is 5 feet 9 inches; Wayne is 6 feet. Wilhite simply could not reach.

NFL defensive back can be a cruel job. On the coverage, Wilhite did everything he could. And still the burden of allowing the deciding touchdown fell on him.

“I thought Wilhite played well and covered him well,’’ Belichick said. “There were some great throws and great catches. It would be hard to say much to Wilhite. He did about all he could do on a couple of those plays.’’

When a defensive back lines up across from a receiver, he understands there is only so much he can take away. If he guards the outside, the inside is slightly open. If he defends the front of a receiver, he is susceptible to a throw over his head. The window may be small, but when a quarterback and receiver play with the skill of Manning and Wayne, it is enough.

“There’re four quadrants,’’ Belichick said. “You can take two of them, but you can’t take all four of them. It is impossible. I think that’s inherent in any type of coverage, whether it’s basketball, football, or whatever it is where you’re on a man.’’

“It’s very simple,’’ Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis said. “As corners, you have to have a short memory. That’s the thing that we are taught, to have a short memory. We know guys are going to catch balls. This league is too good. Quarterbacks are too good.’’

Wilhite learned the lesson Sunday night. He didn’t bother to take solace in having proper coverage or wallow in the result. The Patriots defense, led by Mayo, has forged ahead.

“It’s just something you have to deal with,’’ Wilhite said. “Different people deal with it in different ways. Me personally, I just have to focus on this week. I have a load this week, too. This team, we have something to prove. You feel sour, but you’ve got to move on. It’s football.’’

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com.

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