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Highs and lows for Patriots' defense

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 18, 2011 09:41 PM

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The Patriots defense had mixed results in the season-opening 38-24 win at Miami Monday, so it should probably come as no surprise that there were various highs and lows against the more potent Chargers today.

For instance:

* The Chargers piled up 353 passing yards and another 98 on the ground . . . yet the Patriots made several crucial plays, forcing three turnovers and stopping San Diego on fourth and goal at the 1-yard line with the Patriots holding a 10-7 lead in the second quarter.

* Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson had 10 catches for 172 yards and a pair of touchdowns . . . yet standout tight end Antonio Gates was held without a reception.

* The Chargers marched to the Patriots 29 with 19 seconds remaining in the first half . . . but Vince Wilfork's interception and subsequent return led to a field goal with one second remaining and a 20-7 New England lead at the half.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick gave his defense -- and the team in general -- the benefit of the doubt after beating a talented opponent that he and his players clearly respected.

"I’m really proud of our football team today," Belichick said. "I’ll tell you, we had a lot of guys battle through stuff – coming off a short week, getting ready for this football team. The Chargers are a good football team, but ultimately the turnovers and getting the ball in the end zone was big for us."

The stop on 4th and 1, when Jerod Mayo lunged to cut down running back Mike Tolbert, may have been the most important play of the game since a score would have given San Diego a 14-10 lead and all the momentum.

"[It was] huge," Belichick said. "[They] spilled the ball outside, looked like we got a good push inside and the runner never really got turned up because he ended up going sideways and we were able to make the play. It was a huge play. It was a first-and-goal on the three or something like that; they were down there on all four plays, so it was huge for us."

Said Mayo, who finished with 11 tackles (8 solo): "We showed great mental toughness coming up with huge turnovers and playing complimentary football. Stopping the run and doing things on the goal line really shows the toughness of a defense. I think the guys really showed that today."

San Diego had eight drives into New England territory and four inside the 20 but finished with just 21 points. Maybe bend-but-don't-break isn't the theory behind the Patriots defense, but it was the usual result Sunday.

It’s obvious, a key factor [was not finishing our drives]," said Chargers coach Norv Turner. "Obviously, fourth and a foot – half a yard, whatever, we thought we had a chance to get a touchdown and we thought the touchdown was big there. And obviously, you are counting on getting it but if you don’t, you got them on the foot line."

Then there was the matter of Wilfork's interception, the first of his career and one of two the Patriots had on the day. Second-year safety Sergio Brown had the other, also his first in the NFL.

"You know, the interception, Philip’s [Rivers] interception, I mean, he’s got a guy running wide open and that’s a once in a lifetime," Turner said. "Defensive lineman running a twist and taps it up to himself. You know, sometimes things like that happen. I am sure Philip never saw him, he saw Tolbert running free, where he thought he could get him out of bounds and kick a field goal there."

Rivers confirmed that Wilfork, who slipped into the lane to pick off a short pass intended for Tolbert, wasn't in his line of vision.

"There was no way I could ever see him coming," said Rivers, who finished 27 of 38 for 353 yards, with two TDs and two interceptions. "I’d throw that one again every time. He made a great play – I don’t know if that was something that they looked at. If you don’t get a pass rush and see the back free release… That’s just one of those [things] where he made a great play. I don’t know that I’d do anything differently on that play."

As for the Patriots, they surely wouldn't do anything differently in their coverage of Gates, which was impressive particularly since defensive backs Ras-I Dowling, Patrick Chung, and James Ihedigbo all the left the game at times with injuries, with Dowling (thigh) the only one not to return.

"You can’t really take Gates away; you just compete against him," Belichick said. " Rivers is good and so he found some other guys and they ran the ball, they threw it. But the guys that covered them – [Patrick] Chung, Sergio – the linebackers tried to jam them. We tried to make it hard for them, but you just try to compete against him. You can’t really stop him."

But the Patriots did. They were considerably less successful against Jackson, who often lined up in Gates's usual spot, according to Turner.

"I think it took them a little bit of time to adjust to that," Turner said. "We were hitting those crossing routes and when they made adjustments, we were able to hit some running backs out of the backfield and keep them on their heels. But again, hats off to them. They had a good game plan against us today."

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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