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Pressure on - to improve defense

Brian Moorman, the holder on Rian Lindell’s winning field goal, jumps on Lindell to celebrate. Brian Moorman, the holder on Rian Lindell’s winning field goal, jumps on Lindell to celebrate. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Greg A. Bedard
September 26, 2011

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - What’s the old saying? The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry?

Well, three games into the 2011 campaign, the best laid plans of The Hoodie and the helmets have gone haywire with the defense.

There were no more excuses to be had in yesterday’s stunning 34-31 loss to the Buffalo Bills on the slick turf at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The Patriots gave up yards when ahead, tied, or behind. They weren’t facing the Chargers and Philip Rivers. There was break at the end of their bend.

For the first time in forever, the Patriots offense wasn’t perfect and turned the ball over four times. So the defense got to see how the other 31 teams live on most Sundays.

And it didn’t happen for them.

Patriots were leading, 24-17, when Tom Brady was intercepted and the Bills took over at the 5-yard line.

Result: two plays, 95 yards (46 by penalty), and a touchdown. Tie game.

Brady threw a 6-yard touchdown to Wes Welker to knot the game at 31 with 3:25 left.

A defensive stop would get the Patriots the ball back and a probable victory.

Result: eight plays, 70 yards, and a winning field goal after the Bills ran out the clock after being at the 1-yard line.

There was definitely some good play by the defense, don’t get us wrong. Of the nine Bills drives that started after either a kickoff or punt - normal drives that this defense usually inherits from Brady - the Patriots allowed just two scores, both touchdowns.

But you don’t have to be a complete disaster to be bad on defense in the NFL.

And the Patriots, right now, are bad.

Just admit it, you’ll feel better. The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. It’s OK to confess the Patriots might have problems on the defensive side of the ball. Bill Belichick won’t come looking for you.

It’s time to face facts, which is what Belichick will be doing very early this morning when he looks at the film.

The Patriots have given up 1,406 yards in three games - an average of 468.7 per game.

Do you realize how much that is?

Last year’s team allowed 366.5 yards per game (second only to the 374.9 allowed in 1972) - and that was more than 100 yards less than this year’s group.

Through the air, the Patriots have given up 1,131 yards, or 377.0 per game.

Last year they allowed 258.5.

All told, 80.4 percent of the yards the Patriots have allowed so far this season have been through the air.

Imagine if Brady got to face these guys instead of Chad Henne, Rivers, and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

So what has happened to this defense?

Because of injuries and poor play, Belichick and his assistants have been caught in no man’s land, between what they hoped to be, and what they are.

When Belichick set sail this season, his plan was clear: he was going to infuse the defense with players along a four-man line that could get after the quarterback. That would allow him to get out of playing soft zone - against which quarterbacks have just become progressively too accurate - and the Patriots would play more press man coverage on the outside with one or two safeties lurking over the top.

The problem is that the Patriots haven’t been able to pressure the quarterback with just the four players up front. And Belichick isn’t willing to blitz more than a handful of times each game.

If there’s no pressure, most quarterbacks and their receivers are going to beat man coverage.

That’s what the Bills saw on film entering the game.

“We saw a lot of man to man, a lot of one-on-one coverage [on film],’’ said Bills receiver David Nelson. “It comes down to you beating your man. If you can’t beat man-to-man coverage, you can’t play in this league.

“We knew they weren’t a big blitz team. So we knew we were going to be able to drop back and have time to throw the football.’’

And therein lies the problem with the ’11 Patriots. Not enough pressure.

The Patriots looked loaded coming out of camp along the defensive line. Having Albert Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork in the middle was going to force teams to leave at least a few players single-blocked. Even if Haynesworth didn’t work out, the Patriots would have the promising Myron Pryor and Kyle Love to rotate in.

Ends Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Mike Wright, Jermaine Cunningham, and Mark Anderson surely could take advantage if teams decided to take care of the players closest to the quarterback first: Wilfork and Haynesworth.

None of it, besides the outstanding Wilfork (except in losing postgame locker rooms, where the captain was a no-show again yesterday), has worked out.

Wright, the team’s best pass rusher last season, is dealing with another concussion. Pryor is on injured reserve. After showing no improvement in training camp, Cunningham has been hurt and nowhere to be found.

When not facing Richie Incognito of the Dolphins, Haynesworth has either been ineffective or hurt.

That means teams are going to double Wilfork and take their chances with the other guys. Carter is getting chipped, Rob Ninkovich is floating between end and linebacker, Ellis has shown the Jets made the right decision to let him go, and Anderson isn’t filling the role of designated pass rusher.

Carter, Ellis, and Anderson weren’t brought in to be the pass rushers. They were brought in to be part of a well-rotated ensemble. Without a rotation to keep them fresh, they just look old.

“It definitely hurts them that they didn’t travel with that many defensive linemen, they’ve had injuries and I’m sure they’ll pick up guys or guys will get healthy,’’ said Bills center Eric Wood. “You kind of have to pick and choose your battles or else you’re going to be spent by the third quarter. I think that probably contributed to it.’’

With the rare blitzes being thrown in, that has left the secondary on an island and opposing offenses are licking their chops.

“From film work, we knew that we could get past their corners,’’ said receiver Donald Jones, who had a career-high 101 yards on five catches. “We knew that those guys would jump routes on double moves. When we got the coverage we wanted, we took advantage of it.’’

Devin McCourty continues to have his struggles in his sophomore season. Either he fails to get a jam at the line of scrimmage, or he’s too worried about catching up to play shoulder-to-shoulder in man coverage to make a play on the ball.

“In the secondary, it always comes down to technique,’’ McCourty said. “You could step the wrong way or do something and the guy gets an advantage. It usually always comes down, especially at the corner position, to technique. [The receivers] made a good release on me and it was just bad technique.’’

Combine poor execution on the outside and shoddy tackling and playmaking from the young safeties, Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown, and you have a big bust like on the 38-yard pass to running back Fred Jackson down to the 1-yard line with 1:48 left that set up the winning score.

“He caught it across the middle, and I should have gotten him down,’’ Barrett said. “I should have been able to make that tackle.’’

The Patriots are a bad defense right now, but that does not mean they’re a lost cause. There’s way too much football to be played for anyone to say that.

Belichick is definitely going to have to adjust. When he rolls the film today, he’ll see what the Bills saw: the times the Patriots played zone in the first half gave the Bills trouble.

“They came out and kind of changed up a little bit in the first half, that’s what gave us a few problems early on,’’ Nelson said of the Patriots’ zone coverages. “They went back to [man] in the second half and we took advantage.’’

Belichick, at least for now, is likely going to go back to playing more zone. It’s certainly not a cure-all, but at least it should help a young secondary that is struggling to sort out its assignments to get back on the same page.

And when - or if - the four-man lines start affecting the quarterback, then the coverage can become more aggressive.

Pressure and coverage have to work in unison. The man-to-man plan in the secondary is not working because the pressure is not there.

So Belichick’s plan hasn’t worked to this point. No one’s better at adjusting, and that’s what he’ll have to do.

“They are a young defense. They had a lot of guys that were injured today that didn’t play. That plays a factor into it,’’ said Jackson. “They are a defense that is going to get better. We know that. We have to face it again, they’ll be better the second time we play them.’’

It certainly can’t get any worse.

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

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