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This defense pulling rank

Patriots in shut-down mode

FOXBOROUGH -- Remember this day. Mark it down as the day you read the New England Patriots' defense mentioned in the same sentence with Miami's and Tampa Bay's celebrated units.

Go ahead. Refer to them in the same breath among your pals. You won't get laughter or weird looks if they've been paying attention. New England is 6-2 and leading the AFC East primarily because, despite a rash of injuries and a dependence on rookies, it ranks third in the NFL in average points allowed, surrendering 16.1 per game. You could say the Patriots have the stingiest defense outside Florida, as they trail only the Dolphins (12.8 heading into last night's game against San Diego) and Buccaneers (13.9), long regarded as two of the league's best units, in the most important defensive category.

In their past three games, the Patriots have allowed the Giants 6 points, Miami 13, and Cleveland 3. They've given up 20 or fewer points in six of eight games this season. Last year, opponents scored 21.6 points per game. So they're back to 2001 Super Bowl champions mode, when the other guys managed 17 a game.

"The way our defense has been playing is phenomenal," running back Kevin Faulk said yesterday. "You can't really explain it."

Coach Bill Belichick gave it a try.

"If you can play well on third down in this league and not give up big plays, it's hard for them to score unless you turn the ball over a lot," he said. "That's a good formula right there if you can do it on a team basis."

You'll gladly sacrifice statistics when your objective is to win games, not recognition as the top-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed. A Belichick/Romeo Crennel-designed defense isn't designed to stop an opponent from gaining yards. Rather, it's designed to stop drives and, ultimately, prevent points. And there are three ways to do it: play well in the red zone, play well on third down, and force turnovers. The Patriots do all three, and that's more important than where they rank in overall defense (13th, up from 23d in 2002).

Only Buffalo and Denver allowed a higher rate of touchdowns inside the 20-yard line than New England last season. The opposition kicked extra points more often than field goals in the red zone: 34 TDs in 54 trips, or 63 percent. This year? It's down to 39.1 percent, or nine touchdowns on 23 advancements inside the Patriots' 20. That's the fifth-best rate in football.

In 2002, the Patriots were 26th in third-down defense. Right now they're fourth. Better, but not quite there, Belichick said. "Even though our third-down statistical numbers have been pretty good, we haven't had a lot of third-down sacks and haven't knocked the quarterback down on third down quite as much as you would like to in that situation where, for the most part, you know they are going to throw," Belichick said.

Last season the Patriots tied for 14th in the league with 29 takeaways. This morning they're tied for third with 19. Granted, the last three weeks the Patriots have had to defend the struggling Giants, Miami's often offensive offense, and the "explosive" Browns, as Belichick called them, though they didn't make a peep Sunday. And earlier in the season, they caught the Eagles and Jets on good days (for the Patriots). But it goes both ways. Take away Sam Adams's interception return for a touchdown in Week 1, Washington starting a drive at New England's 1-yard line in Week 4, and Miami taking over at the Patriots' 16 two weeks ago -- predicaments no defense can be expected to bail its team out of -- and the Patriots' average for points allowed is 13.5.

So what does it all mean? That the Patriots' defense does its job.

The most dramatic improvement is in the run defense, which ranked second-to-last last season but has been more stout than all but three teams through the first half of this season. There's always room for improvement, Belichick said. "Even though the rushing yardage wasn't that significant [against the Browns, 84 yards], the yards per carry was [4.4]. That's more than we would like to be giving up."

The Patriots' defense in three years under Belichick and two under both he and Crennel has been rather rubbery, a bend-but-don't-break bunch. This year, though, they haven't bent as easily. They're in the top 10 in both average yards per rush and per pass.

As impressive as the what is the how. Two rookies start on defense and two others are key contributors. Belichick and Crennel have had to test the level of their defensive depth, and so far it has passed, as nearly everyone on the depth chart has seen significant playing time. And done something with it. Eleven players have sacks and seven have interceptions.

"Having the depth and being able to use people situationally in different areas sometimes allows them to perform better in those areas because they know that's their main focus," Belichick said. "Being able to have enough depth and be able to handle all of the different formations defensively that you're going to see in a game or through the course of a series of games, it's very helpful."

New England wanted its base defense to be the 3-4 but has had to play more 4-3 because of injuries to three starting linebackers and nose tackle Ted Washington. Last year teams ran through the Patriots' 4-3 front, often until they found the end zone.

"Fundamentally, we're playing better football, using our hands better, playing with better leverage on the blockers, setting a better force outside so that we're not giving up the easy, bounce-out, uncontested-yardage runs," Belichick said. "I just think we're playing better fundamentally as a team. There are some different players in there, so I think you have to give credit to the guys who are here playing better and the new guys coming in and doing a good job, too."

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