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Patriots defense rests its case

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  October 17, 2011 04:51 PM

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Perhaps, we have lost our football roots here and become so superficial that we turn our noses up at any win that doesn't provide us with DVR-worthy highlights and fantasy points. Anything outside of the regularly-scheduled offensive onslaught from Tom Brady and Co., is ugly, in which case the 2001 Patriots were hideous.

A "Beautiful Day" came with a lot of aesthetically blase wins.

Can't blame you. Defense has become so passe in the NFL and so unfamiliar in Foxborough that it's chalked up as unsightly play.

The Patriots won a game (20-16) yesterday against the Dallas Cowboys at Gillette Stadium, where the patrons where treated to stingy defense, or what passes for stingy defense in today's pass-happy, hands-off-the quarterback (even two-hand touch as Anthony Spencer learned), aerial assault NFL.

Remember the 1960s counter-culture rallying cry of "Don't trust anyone over 30"? Well, don't trust a football team that can only win when it scores more than 30 points. Until yesterday, that's the team the Patriots were. It's the type of team the Patriots used to beat on their way to boarding the Duck Boats. It's the type of team that takes its gaudy stats and individual awards home for the winter instead of a championship trophy. It's the type of team that sticks out its chest in the regular season and bows its head come January.

That's why yesterday's victory over the Jerry Jones AC was the most encouraging of the season for the Patriots. They can now head to hiatus with a 5-1 mark and the confidence that Brady and the offense won't have to claim the defense as dependents the rest of the season.

The Patriots won on a day when their top-rated offense was ordinary, held under 30 points for the first time in 14 games and limited to a season-low 371 yards, 80 of which came on the final drive. Padding the confidence of the defense with a statement win is much more significant than Brady or Wes Welker padding their stats.

"For everybody else out there it might be a statement game," said Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty. "We believe in ourselves no matter what. We knew that if we keep working hard in practice and trying to get better it's going to pay off. Each week we feel like we're taking steps to get better, and if we keep doing that then we think we can be a very good defense by the end of the year."

Brady's brilliant final march was the crowd-pleaser, but the Patriots offense doesn't get a chance to take a bow if the defense doesn't limit the damage from Brady's two interceptions, an Aaron Hernandez fumble and Matthew Slater's fumbled kickoff. Dallas collected four Patriots turnovers, but could only turn them into a pair of field goals. The defense also forced a pair of Dallas turnovers that led to six points.

No one is going to confuse this Patriots defense with the '85 Chicago Bears. But that's two weeks in a row the oft-derided and doubted defense has shown notable improvement after a start to the season that saw none from last year. Last week, the Jets were willing accomplices in the amelioration of the Patriots' defense.

The Cowboys were unwilling victims of it. Dallas came in with the third-ranked passing offense in the NFL (331 yards per game). They had offensive star power in Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin.

After holding the Jets to 3 of 11 on third down last week, the Patriots limited the Cowboys to 4 of 12 and 0 for 3 in the fourth quarter, including a stop at the New England 5.

The Cowboys tried to establish the run. The Patriots held them to 77 yards on 24 carries, made all the more impressive by the absence of linebacker Jerod Mayo, out with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee. If there is a silver lining to Mayo's injury it is that it has forced second-year linebacker Brandon Spikes to grow up and show up finally this season.

New England took away Romo's security blanket tight end, Witten, by having outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich all but assault Witten off the line of scrimmage. Witten had caught at least six passes in each of the Cowboys games. Yesterday, he had four catches for 48 yards and a 1-yard touchdown.

"He's one of those guys where if you get to him it's going to kind of mess up their offense," said Ninkovich. "They're not going to be able to do what they want to do."

Witten walked away feeling the Patriots defense is better than the No. 32 total defense ranking it woke up this morning still owning.

"Oh, they're a lot better," said Witten. "We talked about that early in the week. That was early in the year. They were playing a lot more man coverage. They've done a good job with their zone package, getting pass rush with the front four. They did a good job re-routing and forcing me into situations."

At the end of the game, it wasn't the Patriots defense that was having its Super Bowl credentials debated it was Romo, who had the ball taken out of his hands by craven coach Jason Garrett, a tacit admission of the lack of trust Garrett has in his imprudent quarterback.

Did you ever think you'd see a time this season when a coach didn't want his quarterback to pass against the Patriots?

There are still issues to sort out. Someone other than indefatigable defensive end Andre Carter has to be able to pressure the quarterback when the game is in doubt. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth has to get in shape. McCourty must stop trying to defend deep passes as if he has eyes in the back of his helmet.

But a defense that had spent more time defending its poor rankings than opponents reminded us "winning ugly" can be a beautiful thing.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news


...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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