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On Football

Patriots’ youth gets served up

By Albert R. Breer
September 20, 2010

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — With the Patriots playing many young players on defense, it was inevitable there would be days like this in 2010.

But after watching the ugliness of the Jets’ season opener against the Ravens, chances are many didn’t think it would be a Mark Sanchez-led offense making the Patriots look like a bunch of tour guides to the end zone.

Yes, those were the Jets, efficiently converting third downs, playing with poise and purpose, and being the schoolyard bully in a one-sided fight.

Once the momentum started rolling in the wrong direction, the defense could do little but be bowled over. That happens sometimes with a young unit, and it’s clearly happened twice in two weeks to the Patriots.

Beginning midway through the second quarter of the Bengals game, the Patriots have allowed scores on nine of 14 possessions, including six touchdowns. Also in that time, the Patriots have allowed conversions on 13 of 24 third downs.

That’s enough to make some cover their eyes. But for a defense starting four second-year players and two rookies, the key will be keeping those eyes open, and taking yesterday’s bludgeoning for what it was.

“You’re going to learn every snap, every series, every game you’re out there,’’ said second-year cornerback Darius Butler, who had a brutal afternoon, but to his credit faced the music. “We’re going to learn from it and get better from it. If you’re not doing that, you’re not doing the right thing.’’

What we saw was exactly what was on display in preseason games against the Rams and Giants. This group is going to take its lumps.

Here’s some perspective: The Bengals and Jets offenses failed to score touchdowns in their respective games against Baltimore. Cincinnati went 3 for 18 on third down against the Ravens yesterday. The Jets were 1 for 11 on third down against Baltimore last Monday.

The hard truth is that this Patriots defense is awfully mediocre for the right reasons — the players are young and inexperienced.

That means the defense should get better, since it isn’t very good right now.

“We’re just struggling to put two halves of football together this year,’’ third-year linebacker and captain Jerod Mayo said. “And we have to figure it out. We’ll go back and look at the film and try to fix it for next week.’’

As was the case against Cincinnati, the defense got off to a hot start against the Jets. But this time, the turning point came without the team holding a big lead.

Last week, the defense’s leaks in allowing 428 yards of total offense were chalked up to playing with a lead that grew to 24-0, and giving a little as the clock ticked away. No such excuses were available this time around.

The defense’s first series, a three-and-out, was bookended by 13- and 15-play drives that chewed up almost 16 minutes off the clock. Problem was, all of that added up to just a 7-0 lead, allowing the Jets to maintain a balanced approach.

At that point, the Jets adjusted and fought through it, and the Patriots defense failed to counter.

“Whatever they did, whatever they adjusted to, we made adjustments and counteracted them,’’ said tight end Dustin Keller. “[Offensive coordinator] Brian Schottenheimer did a good job, and [quarterback] Mark Sanchez did a good job putting the ball there.’’

At one point, the Patriots’ time of possession was 15:41 and the Jets’ was 1:02. From that point, the Jets held an edge of almost 10 minutes in time of possession, indicative of the balance of their effort and the efficiency with which they converted in crucial situations.

In the end, Sanchez (21 of 30, 220 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 124.3 rating) set career highs for completions and touchdowns, a week after the Ravens made him look like he couldn’t start for Piscataway High. And New York grinded out 136 rushing yards, with LaDainian Tomlinson popping a 31-yarder on the go-ahead touchdown drive in the third quarter.

All told, the Jets’ scoring drives lasted 12, 7, 10, 6, and 8 plays, and they finished the Patriots off with a first down produced by four consecutive running plays. Those numbers show the consistency of the Jets offense.

They also revealed the Patriots defense’s issues. Butler got beat consistently, then showed some frustration on two back-breaking pass interference penalties on New York’s last touchdown drive.

The young linebackers got lit up by Keller (seven catches, 115 yards, TD). The front wore down.

“In this league, you’ve got to have a short-term memory,’’ said outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, at 30, one of the unit’s elder statesmen. “You’re going to have some good plays, you’re going to have some bad plays. Nobody plays a perfect game, whether you’re young or old.’’

But for this defense to give the Patriots any chance, it’ll have to be a lot closer to perfect than it has been so far.

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

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