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Patriots defense plays press coverage

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  October 5, 2010 11:05 AM

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The media did something Bill Belichick could not until last night -- get the Patriots defense to play better.

The Patriots entered last night's game ranked 29th in the NFL in points allowed per game (27.3). They were 27th in total defense, allowing 379.3 yards per game. They were coming off a game in which they surrendered 23 points to the Buffalo Bills. They had been harangued, maligned, and dismissed.

The pen proved mightier than the playbook, as Belichick resorted to the oldest trick in the coaching handbook, playing the disrespect card with his defenders. He pointed out that most Patriots pundits, including those in the team-produced publication, were picking the Miami Dolphins to win last night's game.

Who says Belichick doesn't like the media?

It worked, as the Patriots shut up their critics and silenced the raucous football-meets-frat party atmosphere that is a Dolphins a home game with a 41-14 victory last night at Sun Life Stadium.

The effort gave a new meaning to the idea of a defense playing press coverage.

"Yeah, you guys have been rough on us. I mean but deservedly so," said cornerback Kyle Arrington. "This was a great win. It was just an overall great team win, offense, defense, special teams. We set the bar pretty high for ourselves this game. There should be no excuse for why we can't continue."

For the record, yours truly selected the Patriots to win this game, and Belichick was employing this ploy even when the team was coming off back-to-back Super Bowls, but let's not let the facts get in the way of a good psychological gimmick or a marquee win in Miami.

Whatever their motivation, the Patriots' defense produced its most encouraging effort to date, allowing a season-low 14 points and producing four turnovers, including Patrick Chung's 51-yard interception return for a touchdown.

More importantly they did something that they were unable to do all of last season -- hold a second-half lead on the road. Last year's trip to Miami was marred by the Patriots blowing a 21-10 second-half lead on the way to devastating 22-21 loss.

"We started to do what we do in practice," said safety Brandon Meriweather. "We stopped trying to make every play and just settled down and let the game come to us."

Now, the Patriots go into the bye week with a performance to build on and a share of first place in the AFC East courtesy of a 3-1 record.

If the Patriots can get something approximating this type of defensive effort the rest of the way -- a big if -- then there is reason for optimism in Foxborough. It's as clear as the view from the top of the Prudential that the Patriots are going to go as far as their revamped defense allows them to. Last night it helped them win a key division game on the road. That's a sentence I wasn't sure I'd be typing this season.

On a night when Tom Brady went retro and posted pedestrian numbers (19 of 24 for 153, with a touchdown) and Randy Moss failed to register a reception, a Patriots defense put on the defensive over its play held a Dolphins team that scored 23 points against the New York Jets vaunted and vocal defense to just one touchdown in the second half.

Admit it, after the Patriots went up 27-14 at the end of the third quarter, you held your breath wondering if the defense could hold the lead. They didn't just hold it: they helped increase it. The Dolphins had four possessions after they pulled to 20-14 with 8:56 left in the third quarter, and they went blocked field goal, turnover on downs, interception and interception.

That's why the defensive effort was encouraging. Belichick and Brady can win the division with the defense that played last night. They can't with the one that allowed 28 points to the Jets or 23 to the Bills.

Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, and Richard Seymour aren't walking back through that door, and the draft isn't until April. So the Patriots have to ride or die with what they've got.

Special teams was the story of the game, but the defense did its part.

Most people are going to recall Chung's blocked field goal, which resulted in an Arrington touchdown return.

However, a key prelude to that came after the Dolphins, trailing 27-14, drove to the Patriots' 29. On second and 10, Rob Ninkovich, who had a pair of first-half interceptions that led to field goals, notched a sack. That forced third and 17. Henne's third-down pass was incomplete, leading to the long field goal attempt and a low kick that Chung swatted out of the air like Dwyane Wade.

On the next Dolphins possession, Miami had third and 3 from its 44. Ronnie Brown ran for a yard and on fourth down rookie cornerback Devin McCourty stopped a short pass to Brown for no gain. The next time Miami had the ball Chung intercepted a Henne pass and took it to the house for a 41-14 Patriots' lead.

No one is going to mistake last night's New England defense for the ones with Bruschi, Harrison and Vrabel. Ninkovich didn't suddenly morph into Vrabel. Chung is not Harrison. Mayo isn't Bruschi -- yet.

But everyone has to start somewhere, and last night the Patriots defense started to build confidence by finishing. The next step is to see if they can do it against a higher caliber of quarterback. They'll get that opportunity this month with games against Joe Flacco, who led a game-winning drive for Baltimore against the Steelers on Sunday, Philip Rivers, and Brett Favre.

Because in the end the only picks that should truly matter to the Patriots defense are the ones they generate.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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