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Looks will be deceiving

With new personnel, Patriots plan to get creative with their pass rush

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By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / September 8, 2011

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It’s been shouted far and wide, on sports talk radio to Internet message boards: where is the Patriots’ pass rush?

It has been a hot topic for a couple of years, as New England slipped from fourth in the NFL in yards allowed in 2007 to 10th in 2008 to 11th in 2009.

But last year was the nadir.

Not only were the Patriots 25th in total defense, they were 30th in passing yards allowed and opposing quarterbacks completed 63.5 percent of their passes.

And they were dead last in one of the more important statistics: third-down defense, with opponents converting better than 47 percent. The Bills and Buccaneers, who combined for as many wins as the Patriots last year, were next worst at 43.2 percent.

In 2007, the Patriots ranked second with 47 sacks. Since then they’ve finished 14th, 23d, and 14th.

Sacks aren’t the truest measure of a pass rush, but it’s telling that the Patriots’ leader last season was Mike Wright with 5 1/2, and Wright played just 10 games.

Rodney Harrison, the former standout safety turned NBC analyst, said, “I don’t think the Patriots have had a pass rush the last couple of years. I mean, when you get to a point last year when you depended on Tully Banta-Cain to be your primary pass rusher, I don’t think pass rushing is that big of a concern for you.’’

Ouch.

It wasn’t always like this, Harrison asserts. While with New England from 2003-08, Harrison, a member of two Super Bowl-winning teams, played on defenses that had accomplished pass rushers such as Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest, and Rosevelt Colvin. Things were different.

“I think [Bill] Belichick’s philosophy has been bend but don’t break,’’ Harrison said. “Give up field goals, not touchdowns. It’s always been that philosophy. [But] back when I got there in ’03, we were a very aggressive defense. We blitzed a lot – safety blitz, corner blitz, all different types of blitzes – but for some reason he’s moved away from there.’’

But based on what they’ve done this summer, the Patriots have put more emphasis on pressuring the pocket.

That’s why Albert Haynesworth and Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis were brought in. That’s why the Patriots will consistently use four down linemen, to push the pocket through the middle and collapse it from the edges. That’s why linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes will have more freedom to chase ball carriers and wreak havoc.

And maybe the defense will make life far more uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks than in recent seasons.

It may not have been just the personnel that was the problem. According to one league source, New England wasn’t doing enough to disguise its looks.

Sure, it’s tough to confuse Peyton Manning, but if Chad Henne knows what’s coming, he’ll feel more comfortable and confident.

“It’s a passing game,’’ the source said. ‘If you give the quarterback a bunch of different things to look at, you can confuse him.’’

Coaches and quarterbacks watch an inordinate amount of game film, looking for any insight that will help them win. The best quarterbacks can see an alignment or look just once on film and recall it as the seconds tick off the play clock, or even as the ball is snapped.

That’s why the element of disguise is so crucial.

“There’s so much information that the offense has to process’’ at the line of scrimmage, the league source said. “The quarterback has to be able to read the defense, and if you give the quarterback different looks, he has to process all of that information.

“He’ll call five or six different looks and if you’re moving guys around, by the time he snaps the ball everyone better be on the same page or the play won’t work.

“Baltimore, Pittsburgh, the Jets - they move guys around.’’

The source estimates that only about a quarter of starting quarterbacks in the NFL can properly read defenses while on the move and make the necessary adjustments.

The league source said the Patriots acquired players who can play in 4-3 or 3-4 looks because “the more you can do, the more you can screw up a quarterback, the better off you are.’’

Although Haynesworth famously expressed his dislike of the 3-4 while in Washington last year, he will be asked to play in some three-man fronts.

Fear not, however.

“He’s on board,” the source declared. “He’s on board.’’

Haynesworth is key to the Patriots’ new, aggressive style. If he meets all the qualifiers - if he’s in shape, if he’s healthy, if he’s all in - he can be dangerous, tossing centers and guards as though they were dolls.

Harrison said that Haynesworth, at even 75 percent of the force he was in 2008, is “still better than everyone else that the Patriots have and most guys in the league other than Vince Wilfork.’’

Carter, Haynesworth, Wilfork, and Ellis. That’s the front four the Giants saw in the preseason finale, and that’s likely the starting four-man line Monday against Miami.

Haynesworth and Wilfork (or Myron Pryor or Kyle Love) can push the pocket from the middle, and Carter and Ellis (or Mark Anderson, Wright, or Rob Ninkovich) can collapse it from the outside.

Toss in some disguised blitzes, and the Patriots may not have a middling pass rush anymore.

“Any football player that’s aggressive loves to attack,’’ Wilfork said. “At times it calls for us to attack and at times it calls for us to sit back and play some good technique.

“But I was always told, when the coach gives you leeway to go make a play, you better make it count.’’

If that works, there won’t be much left to shout about.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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