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Play of defense leaves it open to questions

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / December 1, 2009

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NEW ORLEANS - Maybe Bill Belichick had a pretty good idea what he was doing on that fourth and 2.

Maybe he knew what we found out last night.

Even with all the statistical advancement, all the young players playing more prominent roles, there was a simple ugly truth that some chose to ignore about the Patriots defense’s ascension into the top 10 in the NFL rankings.

Through 10 games, that group hadn’t made the kind of big, game-defining, shut-the-door stop that this franchise’s championship defenses had been known for. It doesn’t take Knute Rockne to figure where that counts for something.

Last night in New Orleans, with the Patriots’ 38-17 blowout loss to the Saints, everyone found out just how much it counts for.

There wasn’t much the Saints offense couldn’t do. They went for 480 yards. They averaged 9.6 yards per play. Drew Brees had a perfect passer rating, going a ridiculous 18-for-23 for 371 yards and five touchdowns. New Orleans ran for 113 yards.

And it left the Patriots defense looking for answers. Only this time, there was no Rodney Harrison or Mike Vrabel or Tedy Bruschi to pull things together. This time, when things went bad, they simply got worse and worse.

“I think the frustration got to us a little bit,’’ said linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. “And you get to the point where guys might try to force something, might try to make a play, and end up being out of position. It’s emotional, and that’s true - we can’t panic and be [cussing out] each other on the bench.

“But at the same time, it’s good to have that sense of urgency. We have to turn that into fundamentally sound football.’’

Before last night, apologists would talk about the first 45 minutes of the Indianapolis game, and the way the defense stood up to Peyton Manning and the mighty Colts offense.

Hope you didn’t listen.

When it mattered most in that game - when it always matters most, the fourth quarter - the Patriots yielded more than a point per Colts offensive play. For those keeping score: 16 plays, 187 yards, 21 points, 17-point lead blown.

Against the Saints, the whole game looked that way.

“One thing we try to do as a defense, and it’s hard to do, is put the play behind you,’’ said nose tackle Vince Wilfork. “But it’s hard to do when you’re giving up plays out there. It’s hard to do, but you have to. You have a game to play, so you can’t sit and dwell and go argue on the sideline. We still have a game to play.’’

The trouble is that when the opponent has been elite, the Patriots defense hasn’t played well. Just twice, the Patriots have been faced with offenses ranked in the top dozen in the NFL, and the defense has been eviscerated both times.

The ugliness last night really began early in the second quarter, on the drive that followed Mike McKenzie’s first-quarter interception of Tom Brady. On first and 10 from the New England 18, Drew Brees dumped off a pass to Pierre Thomas, who was 7 yards deep in the backfield.

Thomas burned Derrick Burgess around the corner, and left several Patriots in his wake on the way to the end zone. It was the first sign that the New England defense was completely overmatched.

“I don’t think they were moving as quick as they were on a couple of the game tapes,’’ said Thomas. “They weren’t coming off the ball like we thought they would be.’’

Translation: The Saints had the Patriots on their heels.

Next came Devery Henderson coming completely free on a busted coverage for a 75-yard TD.

Then, it was Brees catching the defense off guard by faking a check-down in the flat, and rifling it down the seam for a 25-yard gain to Patriots castoff David Thomas. Then, it was Robert Meachem beating Jonathan Wilhite to the post for a 38-yard touchdown.

Then it was Marques Colston hauling in a deep in-cut and racing past Wilhite and Brandon Meriweather for 68 yards.

Frustration was growing clear enough for it be completely clairvoyant to the Saints.

“They were out there playing hard, but we wanted it more,’’ said Saints tailback Pierre Thomas. “Yes, they had mental mistakes and that can hurt you. They had the turnovers. That’s the biggest thing. That hurt them a lot. That’s probably what the frustration came from, the turnovers, guys yelling at each other, and the focus wasn’t there.’’

Of the nine Super Bowl winners, seven had top-10 defenses. Only the 2001 Patriots and 2006 Colts didn’t, and those defenses got hot in the playoffs. On the other side, only two of those nine world champions had offenses in the top dozen in the NFL.

What you’re seeing here is the reason the Steelers won it all last year, and the Giants stormed through the playoffs two years ago, and why New England won its last two titles.

Offense wins in the regular season. Defense dominates the playoffs.

Maybe this defense will get better. But signs show it’s still far away from being good enough to win at the highest level.

If you don’t agree, we have another fourth down for you to examine.

Down 31-17, the Patriots went for it on fourth and 4. There was 4:12 left. In the third quarter.

That, of course, says the same thing that the fourth-and-2 call three weeks ago did.

When the chips are pushed to the middle of the table, the Patriots will gamble that their offense can get the job done. They won’t do the same for their defense.

And after last night, and two weeks ago in Indianapolis, it’s pretty clear why.

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