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On Football

Consider it part of the learning curve

By Albert R. Breer
August 27, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — The final score last night, a 36-35 Patriots loss to the lowly St. Louis Rams, told one story.

But as it often is in the preseason, that number was irrelevant. And for once, Bill Belichick’s postgame news conference told the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about the way his overhauled, youth-infused team played.

Eight of the coaches’ 17 answers didn’t have a second sentence. The longest one had four.

That told you all you needed to know, too, about a performance that popped the ballooning optimism coming off last week’s trip to Atlanta. The Rams have gone 6-42 over the last three years, and while both teams had starters in the game, they dominated the Patriots.

Simple as that.

“We didn’t do well on anything,’’ Belichick said. “We didn’t have a good night.’’

To say the home team was uninspired would be an understatement.

By the time the Patriots dialed up their old standby — Tom Brady throwing deep, Randy Moss sprinting to the post — in the third quarter for a 65-yard touchdown, Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo had pulled most of his defensive starters. If only the Patriots’ defense could handle backups so well.

That group yielded a 15-play, 76-yard drive to a Rams offense piloted by undrafted rookie quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, playing behind a line comprised of backups. And remember, St. Louis’s offensive front is considered a trouble spot when the starters are in there.

Bad? You bet it was.

Reason to press the panic button? Hardly.

The Patriots have made a well-reasoned and needed effort to get younger across the board, and particularly on defense, over the last two years.

The upshot is seeing fresh, young legs that could serve as the foundation of the franchise for years to come. The downside is what you saw last night: an inability to establish week-to-week, or even play-to-play, consistency, and a propensity for making back-breaking mistakes.

There were silver linings. Brady recovered from a couple of early three-and-outs to post outstanding numbers (18 of 22, 273 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs), and rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski (three catches, 66 yards, 2 TDs) looked as monstrous as ever. Brandon Tate and the kickoff return team produced a 97-yard touchdown, blocked perfectly, and a 43-yard return on their first two chances.

But the bad outweighed the good. That much was obvious.

“We just have to execute better,’’ Brady said. “In the first half, it’s about making plays on third down . . . It gets pretty old pretty quick when you keep going to the bench after three or four plays. We just had to get a bit of rhythm out there.’’

If you’re looking for fundamental flaws, the big one is familiar. The pass rush, even when helped with blitz calls, struggled mightily to get to Sam Bradford and could well wind up costing this team in the long run. The running game struggled after a big night in Atlanta, with just 28 yards on 11 carries.

But the rest, really, looked more like the process that a defensive unit starting two rookies and two second-year players in prominent positions is going to go through. There are going to be good weeks, and there are going to be bad weeks. This was clearly the latter.

What that means is that the pressure is, like it has been over the last few years, on the offense to perform. When it mattered last night, that didn’t happen.

The Rams led, 17-7, with five minutes left in the second quarter. At that point, St. Louis had punted once, and the Patriots had one first down. By the time the Rams scored their 17th point, the Patriots had run 10 offensive plays.

“We never had the ball,’’ Belichick said, again bluntly stating fact. “We didn’t have any plays to run on offense.’’

Considering the opponent, that’s hardly acceptable from New England’s standpoint. Last night was a chance for the Patriots to impose their will and dominate a team that was the league’s worst last year, and the New England starters couldn’t even outplay their counterparts.

You can use all the adjectives you want for that. Terrible. Absurd. Ridiculous. All apply.

There are lessons that can be taken from this one, of course. The coaches can harp on a boatload of silly penalties. They can show players like Devin McCourty, beaten badly downfield twice (though he only paid for it once, thanks to an overthrow), where they need to improve.

But with so many young players in key spots, they might as well plan for some of this.

The Patriots’ strength over the years has been their consistency and ability to bounce back. The six-year stretch with only one set of back-to-back losses was Exhibit A of that.

So much of it, though, was attributable to the strength of the Patriots’ leadership and steely mental approach the team took game to game. That kind of thing doesn’t just seep into young players’ heads once they slip a New England helmet on. That’s not to say these players won’t eventually get it like the others did.

But last night shows that it’s certainly a process to get there.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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