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This W comes with plenty of worry

By Greg A. Bedard
September 19, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots beat the Chargers, 35-21, yesterday at Gillette Stadium, and that’s the only thing that really matters.

You don’t get extra style points if you’re especially dominating. A W is a W in any context.

If you can feel a but coming, here it is: the defense should not leave anyone with a good vibe.

They’re lucky Tom Brady continues to throw for a gazillion yards. They’re fortunate to have two tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez that can’t be matched up with down the field.

And the defense was fortunate the Chargers continue to underachieve under coach Norv Turner. They’ll never be taken seriously when he utters quotes like, “I am so excited about our football team,’’ and “obviously, when you have a game like this, you can’t wait to go play again.’’

Only the Chargers in September could penetrate the opponent’s territory on all eight of their drives before the final two-minute warning and have 21 points to show for it.

“We beat ourselves,’’ said Chargers tight end Randy McMichael. “They didn’t do anything special. I really think they didn’t do anything to alter us. It was more or less we stubbed our own toes today.’’

Repeatedly.

In the opener against the Dolphins, the Patriots gave up a ton of yards and points, but outside of the opening drive and the final eight minutes of garbage time, there was a lot of good play from the defense.

And you can point to things such as the Patriots generating 20 total quarterback pressures - sacks, hurries, and knockdowns combined - to see that they were affecting the game and Rivers for most of three quarters.

Besides Mark Anderson’s sack and fumble in the final two minutes when the game was already decided, the Patriots got a sack from Rob Ninkovich, a nice play when Shaun Ellis walked the tackle back into Rivers to aid an interception, and three knockdowns, according to the official statistics.

There didn’t seem to be a whole bunch else going on. Even the players could feel that.

“[Against the Dolphins it] was good. That was a progression,’’ said end Andre Carter. “This week, not so much. It’s definitely disappointing because we worked so hard to become great pass rushers. But we did make certain adjustments there.’’

Some of the lack of pressure was by design. In order to blanket tight end Antonio Gates (one target, zero catches), the Patriots paid him extra attention with the linebackers and ends.

“It was tough to get off the ball, they made it tough for me to make a play on the ball,’’ Gates said. “Every time I looked around there were two guys around me. They had a game plan, they wanted to take me out of the game, and that’s what they did.’’

And because Gates was priority No. 1, that left fewer players to blitz - which the Patriots hardly ever did.

And because Rivers throws a lot of checkdowns and doesn’t like dropping deep into the pocket, the Patriots changed their pass rush a bit.

“Rivers is a unique quarterback because he’s a pocket passer,’’ Carter said. “As a defensive end, you have to be aware of where you are rushing. You can’t take those wide rushes like we did the previous week and get around the corner. We did a lot more surging.’’

This is where the Patriots’ new tactic of bringing pressure on the inside should have shown up. If there was any game in which Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth, Kyle Love, and Myron Pryor were going to have an impact, this was going to be it.

The Chargers decided to use their center and guards to control the two Patriots inside rushers, and take their chances on the outside.

“A lot of times they can press the pocket and cause the quarterback not to be able to step up,’’ said left tackle Marcus McNeill. “We wanted to make sure we got a good double team on those two big guys on the inside.’’

It worked. The Patriots’ pass rush as a whole was not effective. And when that happens against a good quarterback with good weapons, the coverage in the back end better be on point.

But it wasn’t.

Cornerback Devin McCourty continues to have problems locating the ball. Kyle Arrington struggled to get receiver Vincent Jackson off his route off the line of scrimmage, which allowed him to have his way as he had 10 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns.

And even when cornerback Ras-I Dowling was injured, Leigh Bodden was not in the game. He’s supposed to be one of the Patriots’ top cornerbacks, and he’s not making much of an impact. He seemed to be effectively benched after two ill-timed penalties.

At safety, Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown had some moments, but the Patriots were not consistent in the secondary.

How else do you explain the Chargers converting 83 percent of their third downs and totaling 470 yards?

The Chargers punted on their opening drive, and fumbled after three plays in the fourth quarter. Their other drives went 80, 75, 51, 77, 64, and 80 yards.

“I played the Patriots when they had a lot of veterans in the back,’’ said McMichael, the former Dolphin. “Now they have young guys. They’re more athletic guys. They’re going to give up some plays but they’re going to make a lot of plays, too, because they’re so athletic. They’re only going to get better.’’

Maybe Bill Belichick put too much on the plate of the youngsters with this wide-ranging game plan that included several different looks and personnel packages. At certain times one had to wonder, because of injuries and substitutions, if some of the Patriots even knew who they were lining up next to down to down.

The Patriots had plenty of personnel packages last year, but there seemed to be defined roles. So far, it seems as though Belichick is putting people in just to find out exactly what he’s got. After a lockout and so many preseason injuries, it’s hard to blame him.

The good news is the Patriots don’t face many teams as talented as the Chargers, and there is plenty of time to get roles sorted out.

In the meantime, lucky for the Patriots, the Chargers shot themselves in the foot to end a lot of drives.

That and an unstoppable passing offense allowed the Patriots to emerge with a W, which is what counts.

But there’s a W in worry, and that’s what people are doing with the defense.

After yesterday’s performance, it’s not hard to see why.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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