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Again, the defense wasn’t up to the task

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / December 2, 2009

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NEW ORLEANS - What we know is that Devery Henderson’s 75-yard touchdown during Monday night’s Saints romp was a total breakdown on the part of the Patriots defense.

What’s harder to figure is the other 405 yards the overwhelming New Orleans offense racked up.

The easy part is acknowledging that the defense was beaten like a three-legged horse in the Kentucky Derby. The hard part is figuring out whether it can improve enough over the next five weeks so that this doesn’t happen when the games really start to count.

Was the club’s leaguewide ranking of sixth in total defense worth the paper it was printed on? Or was it the ultimate case of stat-padding in games in which the Patriots simply got the right opponent at the right time?

Is it just a matter of sweating the details and playing a better mental game? Or is it a defense that can bully the bad teams and no one else?

All questions worth asking.

“I would like to think most all of it is correctable,’’ Patriots coach Bill Belichick said yesterday. “I mean, the majority of the yardage we gave up was on a handful of plays.

“Not saying all the rest of them were great, but any time you give up that much yardage on a handful of plays, it’s bad. But if you can find a way to correct those plays and not give them up all at once, you would be a lot more competitive on defense.’’

That’s correct on one count: The Patriots did give up a lot of big plays, yielding seven of 25 yards or more that covered a total of 292 yards.

But even if you take those out, the Saints had 188 other yards on 43 plays, or 4.4 yards per play. In other words, if you eliminate their seven most productive plays, you still get more than 13 yards per three downs. Take away the Patriots’ seven biggest offensive plays, which went for a total of 178 yards, and you’ll see New England left with less than 3 yards per play.

Point is, the Patriots didn’t get beaten one way. They got beat in every way possible. And it didn’t show only in the results. It was evident in their demeanor, according to the Saints.

Running back Pierre Thomas said New England’s defenders weren’t “moving as quick as they were on a couple of the game tapes,’’ and looked sluggish coming off the ball. That wasn’t without cause.

“When you give up plays early, your confidence is shaken a little bit, and all of a sudden you feel like you’re playing on your heels,’’ defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “You end up playing slower because now you’re worried about it. You’re just not playing and that’s kind of how I saw things happen to us.

“They hit us on some plays that we just are not accustomed to giving up in a particular coverage and things we were in. And I think it just kind of caught everybody by surprise.’’

Pees continued to say that it led to players playing outside what the defense called for from them, in an effort to make plays to change the momentum. Those would be blown assignments, the kind the Henderson TD was, and those are less troubling.

Those can be corrected, and with as good a staff as Belichick has in Foxborough, probably will be before losses become the kind that end your season. Poor tackling and bad angles, too, that were exhibited on Pierre Thomas’s 18-yard screen-pass touchdown, and the 68-yarder Marques Colston chewed out on a catch-and-run off a fade-stop route can be fixed on the fly.

But how about Jonathan Wilhite getting beat to the post by Robert Meachem for a 38-yard touchdown? How about Henderson getting down the sideline on Leigh Bodden for 33 yards on the first play of the game? How about the entire defense being caught flat-footed as ex-teammate David Thomas burned it down the seam?

Those are “mistakes’’ that had to do with players scuffling to keep up with the multitude of weapons the Saints had - and that was with Reggie Bush on the shelf. And those “mistakes’’ are hard to correct, because usually they involve simply not being good enough.

That’s not to say the Patriots can’t improve. Five of the 11 guys who started on defense weren’t with the team last year, and two more weren’t regular starters in 2008. Four starters had three or fewer years of experience.

But the further you get into the year, the less room you have to get better.

“To say, ‘Well, it’s a young defense and maybe we’re sitting back on our heels,’ we can’t accept that,’’ Pees said. “Guys just need to pull together and we’ve got to do a better job all the way around.’’

They tried to Monday night. And what happened was a whole bunch of finger-pointing and grousing. After the game, nose tackle Vince Wilfork bemoaned a scene where players were calling teammates out, and allowing one bad play to carry over and create another one.

As such, the whole thing spiraled out of control.

“I would agree with Vince’s comment on that, that we probably didn’t do a good enough job of moving on to the next play,’’ Belichick said. “You’ve got to learn from those plays, certain plays that happen early in the game. They are significant because the team could come back and do it again, but at the same time, you’ve got to be able to learn from them, put them behind you, and move on - good or bad.

“I probably would agree we didn’t do a great job of that, that there might have been residual effect on some of the plays that happened earlier in the game.’’

So the Patriots wind up yielding 35 points in a six-possession stretch that started with 1:04 left in the first quarter, ended with 7:49 left in the game and closely resembled the final 15 minutes in Indianapolis.

Take away a half-ending kneel-down, and the Saints went for 384 yards on 32 plays during that time, a staggering 12 yards per play.

No matter how badly the club needed a stop to scab up the bleeding, the defense was incapable of providing it. Sort of like how that same defense has been unable to make a game-ending stand all year long.

Both times the Patriots have been faced with elite offenses, they have been bludgeoned. When the team really needed stops against Buffalo in Week 1, the Jets in Week 2, and Denver in Week 5, the defense didn’t make them.

Against Baltimore, the unit got a reprieve with a dropped ball by an open Mark Clayton that would’ve provided first-and-goal for the Ravens inside the 5 at the end of the game. It was a fumble on a kickoff return against Buffalo.

It’s been an issue all year. It’s just been illuminated by the Colts and Saints.

Brandon Meriweather described Monday night simply, saying, “They came out, played good, and we didn’t.’’

That’s true, of course.

The question, then, is whether this defense can be good enough.

And based on the evidence through 11 games, that answer has to be no.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com.

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