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Coverage defenseless

Antwaun Molden (left) and his mates have a problem to tackle. Antwaun Molden (left) and his mates have a problem to tackle. (Thearon w. henderson/Getty Images)
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / October 8, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - The numbers have glared at the Patriots defense for weeks.

They have mocked the team, daring them to do something - anything - about it.

Sure, everyone will focus on the numbers that matter - the Patriots’ 3-1 record - when the New York Jets (2-2) come to town for an AFC East clash tomorrow afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

But the numbers that have become a growing concern are these: 416, 378, 369, 344, and, lest we forget, 32.

The first four figures represent the passing yardage the Patriots have surrendered to: Miami’s Chad Henne, San Diego’s Philip Rivers, Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Oakland’s Jason Campbell.

The last figure, though, represents something even more ominous: the Patriots’ ranking in pass defense (368.8-yard average) among the NFL’s 32 teams.

“That’s nothing that you want to have, statistically,’’ said safety Josh Barrett, who appeared to get benched early in last Sunday’s 31-19 victory at Oakland when the Raiders’ Jacoby Ford got past him and went for 30 yards on an end-around.

“We’re working on that hard in practice,’’ Barrett said. “We’re making sure that, as a secondary, we play hard as a unit and we get those number of big plays down, significantly.’’

While they don’t intend to dwell on their rankings in pass and total defense (477.5-yard average, also last in the league) every time Mark Sanchez drops back and targets Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress or Dustin Keller tomorrow, the Patriots are aware of what must be done to improve.

“You never want to give up big plays,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “You want to try to keep those plays down to minimal gains and make the offense run a lot of plays and not just run a couple that gains a lot of yards. Again, that’s all team defense-related - pass rush, pass coverage, zone coverage, secondary coverage.’’

The Patriots have allowed 13 running plays of more than 10 yards, with four of the top five in the last two games, including a season-long of 41 yards by Oakland’s Darren McFadden last Sunday.

But the team has allowed twice as many big plays on pass defense, giving up 26 completions of more than 20 yards, including four of the top five in the last two games, with Darrius Heyward-Bey hauling in a 58-yarder from Campbell last Sunday.

“Some of the calls, looking back on it, weren’t great defenses to be in against a particular play they happen to run,’’ Belichick acknowledged. “So some of that didn’t match up very well, so it’s a combination of several different things, all of which we can do a little better. Man coverage, zone coverage, playing the ball, coaching, play-calling - I mean, all of the above.’’

Tackle Vince Wilfork, who ranks second on the team in interceptions with two, agreed that the Patriots’ deficient pass defense wasn’t limited to the secondary. It was a function of the interconnection between the front seven and the secondary.

“It works hand in hand,’’ he said. “The more pressure we get, the more balls and chances we get to turn over. The better coverage we get, the more the quarterback will hold the ball. Things you can’t stop are three-step drops or throwing fades or just lobbing the ball up. I don’t care if you’re [running] scot-free, you won’t get there.’’

Although the Patriots have six sacks, but none in the last two games, Wilfork said, “I’m pretty happy with the pressure that we’ve been getting. It hasn’t been perfect at times, but at the same time, it hasn’t been bad at times.

“Just because we’re not recording sacks, we’re getting hits, we’re hitting the quarterback [and] we’re getting some guys free. But you have to get all those things working together - the coverage and the rush, it works together. The back end knows that and we know that up front.

“We know that when these guys cover, we have to get home. It’s a team effort.’’

Linebacker Jerod Mayo, who is likely out six weeks because of a left knee injury, left a huge void. Apart from being the Patriots’ leading tackler, he also served as their lead communicator.

“With Mayo not out there, that’s definitely a loss, but we all have to communicate, we all have to be on the same page,’’ said safety Patrick Chung. “We’ll be good. The communication is going to get better, it just takes time.’’

The Patriots’ glaringly subpar numbers would suggest it might take quite a bit of time.

“I think we’ll get better,’’ Wilfork said. “We don’t have anyone here saying, ‘We’re the greatest defense and there’s nothing else we can do to get better.’ Everyone sees exactly what each other sees - that we can get better.

“There are some things we can change and some things we can play differently that allow us to be a better defense. We’re making strides toward that. I expect big things out of this defense to come. The more we play, the better we’re going to get. I think that’s what we need.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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