THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Forced to face grin reality

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / August 20, 2011

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Perhaps it happened during a quiet moment to himself in the bowels of Raymond James Stadium, or as he settled into his seat for the plane ride home, or when he plopped into his car in the wee hours yesterday morning. There was a crack in Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s facade and his lips.

Even Belichick had to smile a bit after his team dismantled the Buccaneers, 31-14, Thursday night in exhibition game No. 2. What more could you ask for the first time the starters did more than model uniforms?

The first-string offense was awesome. The first-string defense was fearsome. And the Patriots did everything but plunder the ersatz pirate ship behind the end zone.

The Dour Don will never let us see that he is pleased with a performance. It always could have been better played, better coached, blah, blah, blah. (The one legitimate cause for consternation is that wide receiver Chad Ochocinco might eschew GPS in his Prius, but it looks like he could use one for this offense.)

But after the beatdown of the Buccaneers, a team that won 10 games last year, Belichick knows what he has – the best quarterback in football orchestrating his offense like Arthur Fiedler, which isn’t anything new, and a defense that instead of being a concern can create havoc.

As much fun as it was to watch Tom Brady play with all the bells and whistles of the Patriots’ offense, not even allowing the bewildered Bucs a chance to line up half the time, in building a 28-0 halftime lead, it was the reformatted defense - I won’t call it a 4-3, Coach - that bodes best for the regular season.

The Patriots allowed Tampa Bay just 73 yards of offense in the first half, and bivouacked in the Buccaneers’ backfield, finishing with three sacks, four tackles for loss, and numerous pressures.

Even third down, the Waterloo of the Patriots’ defense, was not an issue. Tampa Bay converted just 1 of 8 in the first half, and the one came courtesy of a pass interference penalty on safety Patrick Chung.

Of course, when Belichick was asked about his team pressuring the Buccaneer passers, he customarily downplayed and deadpanned at the dais.

“We’ll take a look at it on the film,’’ he said, nonplussed. “It looked like we had a little bit, but we had trouble chasing these fast quarterbacks - looked like we made a few plays.’’

The reason the Patriots had trouble chasing Buccaneers starter Josh Freeman, who made his NFL debut against the Patriots in London in 2009, and more so his backup, Josh Johnson, was because the Tampa Bay QBs were running for their lives. They barely set up to throw before they were getting up close and personal with Patriot defenders.

The Patriots produced that rarest of sights in these parts, an honest-to-goodness NFL pass rush.

The tone in Tampa was set on the first play when Jerod Mayo barreled in from the edge and hammered Freeman, forcing an incompletion.

Unleashed with more four-man fronts in front of him, Mayo was all over the field, finishing with two sacks, two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, and a pair of passes defended. Cue the Ray Lewis comparisons.

Just as impressive as Mayo at weakside linebacker were the guys in front of him, even without the unblockable and incorrigible Albert Haynesworth.

Tampa Bay left tackle Donald Penn will be seeing Patriots defensive end Andre Carter in his dreams. Maybe he can block him there because he certainly couldn’t do it on the field.

In a representation of why it’s ill-advised to use statistics as the sole arbiter of athletic performance, Carter didn’t merit a mention in the postgame stat book. That’s a capital crime of omission because he provided constant pressure, drew three holding calls, and was the team’s best non-Mayo defender.

We can debate until we’re blue in the face how to classify this defense, but what is not debatable is that it represents A) a notable and significant shift in philosophy and B) a vast improvement.

The single biggest reason the Patriots haven’t won a playoff game since the second George Bush was president and haven’t won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season is because their defense hasn’t been up to Lombardi Trophy specifications.

The Ravens ran the Patriots into the ground two seasons ago in an embarrassing home playoff loss, throwing the ball just 10 times. The last straw for Belichick was last year’s playoff defeat to the Jets, during which his defense made desperate Brady wannabe Mark Sanchez actually resemble TB12 a bit.

So, with the copious free time he had during the lockout, Belichick went back to the drawing board. We saw the results last night.

Belichick’s more forward-thinking approach to a more forward-thinking and -playing defense could be the missing link to Lombardi Trophy No. 4.

If the Patriots are able to play defense like they did Thursday night, then the rest of the NFL better look out because you know Brady and Co. are going to pile up points like kindling. That has never been a question. If the Patriots have a defense to match, then I hear Indianapolis, site of the Super Bowl, is lovely in early February.

Of course it is the preseason, so you have to take performances like Thursday night’s with a grain of salt.

After all, it was just a week ago that some folks had third-string rookie quarterback Ryan Mallett being flipped for a first-round pick. Instead, Thursday night he was thrown for a loop by the Buccaneers, who scored off a return of his Bledsoe-sequel, fadeaway interception.

But preseason or not, Thursday night was enough to make even the most pessimistic of gridiron sages grin at the possibilities.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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