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After change, the defense was money

With a sack of Tim Tebow (the Patriots’ fourth and final) for a loss of 28 yards, Rob Ninkovich (50) flattened the Broncos’ hopes. With a sack of Tim Tebow (the Patriots’ fourth and final) for a loss of 28 yards, Rob Ninkovich (50) flattened the Broncos’ hopes. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / December 19, 2011
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DENVER - For more than a quarter yesterday against the Broncos, the Patriots defense seemed to sink to depths we didn’t know existed.

Denver rolled up 218 yards in the first quarter, 167 on the ground. The Broncos scored their first offensive first-quarter touchdown since Nov. 13. The 13 points marked the first time all season the Broncos notched double-digit scoring in the opening quarter.

Heck, even Tim Tebow, who couldn’t hit holy water if he fell out of boat until the fourth quarter leading up to this game, completed his first three throws.

The Patriots defense was, in a word, terrible. It was so bad you wondered if they even watched film of the Broncos.

“I’m not going to make any excuses because obviously they put those numbers up there,’’ said linebacker Rob Ninkovich. “You have to put that on us because we can’t do that in the first quarter.’’

But then, suddenly, everything changed.

The Broncos certainly helped with three second-quarter turnovers (two forced by the Patriots), but the facts remained: the Patriots allowed just 10 points and 175 yards in the final three quarters of a 41-23 victory that delivered a ninth AFC East title in 11 years.

So, what happened?

Safeties coach/defensive play-caller Matt Patricia scrapped the plan, and started anew.

“The schemes they were running and the way we were playing them, it just wasn’t working,’’ Ninkovich said. “So we had to completely change what our philosophy was.’’

Patriots assistant coaches, with a few exceptions, have seemingly taken more hits than their secondary this season.

Among those is Patricia, who is 37 and in his eighth season with the Patriots after coming from the college coaching ranks.

But several Patriots defenders said after the game that it was Patricia who got the defense back on the winning page.

“The first quarter was tough and as soon as we went to the sideline, Matty P made all those adjustments,’’ linebacker Jerod Mayo said. “It ended up being the right move for us.

“It was difficult that first quarter. It was difficult.’’

You can say that again. And a lot of it had to do with the linebackers. If it wasn’t Ninkovich losing contain on an outside run, it was Dane Fletcher or Tracy White running aggressively to the inside of a lineman while the running back went the other way. Or Mayo not getting off a block.

The Patriots entered the game with a 4-3 alignment, where four down linemen would take up the blockers and allow the linebackers to flow to the ball. But it didn’t work, for two reasons.

One, the Broncos, under innovative offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, scripted their first 15 plays much differently than the Patriots had prepared for. The differences were subtle, but threw the Patriots for a loop.

Ninkovich said the Broncos wanted to test the Patriots early on the strong side, where the tight end plays. The defense will tilt more defenders to that side to force the ball back inside.

“Obviously, they had a couple runs on our force, so we just had to adjust some of the things that we were doing and take away the outside runs and option,’’ Ninkovich said. “We just had to be more aggressive with the quarterback.’’

Mark Anderson took care of that when he replaced the injured Andre Carter and forced a Tebow fumble on an option in the second quarter.

The Patriots also had difficulties because it’s one thing to defend the Broncos offense in the classroom or on the practice field, but it’s quite another during the game when the speed is much faster.

“It’s like having an extra running back in the backfield when you have Tebow or Michael Vick or anything like that,’’ Mayo said. “Your eyes are going all over the place instead of reading your keys. That’s probably the biggest difference.’’

The Patriots had to settle down individually, but the scheme also needed tweaking.

After every defensive series, Bill Belichick and Patricia go over the overhead photographs of the preceding series. Then they discuss changes and put them in motion.

The big adjustment for the Patriots was going to a 3-4 front.

“We needed to change our spacing,’’ Belichick said. “We were in a little more odd spacing to try to keep better leverage on the formation.

“They gave us a lot of shifting early in the game, motion, changed formations, so we were able to settle down for a combination of reasons. But one [benefit] of it was kind of balancing up the defense. I think that helped us a little bit.’’

The 3-4 alignment seemed to give the linebackers a little bit more space to operate and to set up the would-be blockers. It should also be noted that Patricia has seemed to be more comfortable calling plays in the 3-4 - which the Patriots played before this season and Patricia grew up with as a coach here - as opposed to the 4-3 with which New England started the season.

It also helped that the players played better. It certainly didn’t hurt that Anderson, whose calling card is as a change-of-pace pass rusher from the end, filled the outside linebacker spot in standout fashion with two sacks in addition to his forced and recovered fumble.

With Carter likely out for the season with a quadriceps injury, Anderson is going to have to do it on an every-down basis from here on out.

“I’ve been able to work the outside linebacker position a little bit, playing the run, setting the edge for us; I’ve been doing that since training camp,’’ Anderson said. “And it’s something that we’ve worked on. I was able to get a little taste of that last week [against the Redskins] and I felt like it was good momentum to come in this week and understand how to play that position.’’

After an abysmal first quarter, the players played better, but the coaches also coached better.

The Patriots will need to continue both as the games get bigger.

“Matt P, he’s a great coach, and after the first few series he knew what they were trying to do and that’s when we adjusted to it,’’ Ninkovich said. “So you have to give credit to all the coaches on the defensive side. They knew what was happening and adjusted our defense to play better.’’

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

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