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Defense was hardly afraid to mix it up

Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain (No. 95) and defensive end Jarvis Green (No. 97) celebrate a sack. (Barry Chin / Globe Staff) Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain (No. 95) and defensive end Jarvis Green (No. 97) celebrate a sack.
By Albert R. Breer
December 21, 2009

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - Perhaps the most important thing the Patriots did to aid their defense’s success yesterday was something me, you, or some dude in Section 223 could do just as well.

That, of course, was to accept penalties.

It was a flag that halted Buffalo’s first drive, and limited the Bills to 3 points after they had ripped through the Patriots’ injury-ravaged front like a fat kid navigating a box of Ho Hos. It was a flag that called off the recovered onside kick that would’ve given the Bills the ball and a chance to tie the game late.

And in between, there was a litany of flying yellow cloth that put the New England defense in prime position.

Now, here’s where you give those guys credit - when there was blood in the water, more often than not in this sleepy 17-10 win, the Patriots defense went for the kill, and that’s a step in the right direction. So it was that the Patriots hurried and harried Ryan Fitzpatrick into a benching, then injured backup Trent Edwards for good measure.

When it was over, they had six sacks, a monumental number for one of the league’s worst pass rushes. In 11 of their last 12 games, they’d had two or fewer. Against Tampa Bay, the Patriots had three. The four they notched in the season-opener against these Bills - with two in the final two minutes - was the season high before yesterday.

They did it with scheme, flooding the field with edge rushers and linebackers, and floating them around the line to disguise who was coming and who was dropping into coverage. They did it with attitude, which sprung from players-only film sessions that prevented some of the riskier calls from becoming big plays for the opposition. And they did it with execution.

“We tried to mix it up,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “We had a lot of different guys coming. We had some DBs and our linebackers try to stem the front and move it around a bit, just to make them work to pick it up. Sometimes we got there, sometimes maybe we caught them a little offguard, or hesitant trying to figure out who’s who.’’

If you need to find the reason why the approach was more exotic and aggressive this week, you can, as is often the case with the game-plan-centric Patriots, look at the opponent.

Yesterday’s five starters represented the eighth combination of offensive linemen the Bills have trotted out to begin a game this season.

Starting left tackle Jonathan Scott became a Bill after being cut by the Lions before their 0-16 season in 2008. Right tackle Kirk Chambers was another backup pressed into action because of injury. Guard Richie Incognito was a member of the Rams at this time last week.

Then there’s the fact that the quarterback is Ryan Fitzpatrick, and from there you don’t need the signal-caller’s Harvard degree to figure why mind games would be in order.

“That’s what New England does, we knew that coming into the game and we knew with a new group starting, we were gonna see all sorts of stuff,’’ Incognito said. “I can’t tell if it was guys getting beat on one-on-one blocks or it was scheme breakdowns. We gotta watch the film on that.

“The idea is confusion.’’

This wasn’t exactly Tom Landry introducing the Flex Defense. In fact, really, it wasn’t anything that teams like Baltimore or the Jets would find out of the ordinary, removing interior linemen from the game, getting speed on the field, and disguising the front by keeping players from giving away which position they’re playing.

But it did create a pass rush, and that’s been rare of late around here.

The first two sacks came on Buffalo’s second drive, and they were set up by a false start by Chambers before the first play. That backed the Bills up to first and 15, and on second and 7, Mike Wright got to Fitzpatrick. On third and 11, it was Derrick Burgess.

The Bills’ third drive kicked off with a holding penalty assessed to Incognito. Their fourth possession was stalled by another Incognito hold, which allowed the Patriots to dial up more pressure that led to Jonathan Wilhite’s interception of Fitzpatrick.

Of course, all of this only works if you win on first down, and hold the running game in check. The Patriots did neither on the first drive of the game, so the looks and pressures were basic. They did both, with some help from the Bills’ bumbling offense, thereafter, allowing them to mix things up, and take advantage of the opponent’s shortcomings.

“We knew they had some changes on the O-line and a different quarterback,’’ Tully Banta-Cain said after his three-sack afternoon. “So we knew if we gave them some different looks and mixed up the pressures, it could cause some confusion. I think we were able to try it out early in the game and we got some success on it and it carried through the rest of the game.’’

Now, the defense did yield a long fourth-quarter drive that was killed only by a fourth-down drop by Josh Reed at the 2-yard line.

And the Bills did waltz into the end zone late, scoring with 3:02 to go to keep the flame burning before their own defense failed to get a stop at the end of the game, following the penalty-negated onside kick.

But for a group that entered the game 26th in the NFL in sacks per pass play, this six-sack, much-pressure effort validated the extra work put in during the week.

On Wednesday, members of the defensive front seven met and watched film, without the coaches, in an effort to better understand each other’s roles and tendencies.

Players said it led to better execution yesterday. Despite some bold play-calling, the Patriots only allowed one play of 20-plus yards, and that, they say, was because of each player’s better understanding of everything around him. It also allowed for certain players to get more winnable matchups.

Two of Banta-Cain’s sacks came as the linebacker beat a back, and he said, “We take pride as linebackers, D-ends, that we never get blocked by a running back.’’ And finding a way to get Banta-Cain in that situation, against this group, wasn’t so difficult.

“We had more speed out there, more confusion - Who’s coming? Who’s going? Who’s rushing? Who’s dropping?’’ another linebacker/end hybrid, Rob Ninkovich, said. “Hard for them to figure out who’s the Mike, where they’re sliding to. It worked out for us.’’

Figuring that out is as easy as looking at the statistics from this impressive defensive performance. What’s more complicated is deciphering whether it will “work out’’ again.

Because chances are the next time around there won’t be as much help from the other team.

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

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