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Patriots defense will be tested in the air

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff  September 9, 2011 10:28 AM

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In the first game of the 2011 NFL season, there were 10 touchdowns scored. Combined, quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees completed 59 of 84, passes, or 70.2 percent, with six touchdowns, and no interceptions. There were 11 more completions in the game than there were rushing attempts.

In a modern NFL where the game is becoming more and more like the Arena League, this is the kind of offensive monster the Patriots defense will be up against this season.

Yes, these were the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints, the last two Super Bowl winners, homes of two of the league's very best quarterbacks. This is early September. And yet, if you watched any or all of last night's 42-34 win by the reigning champion Packers at Lambeau Field, you could not help but come to the conclusion that defense has grown more difficult than ever in a league where each offseason brings more rules changes designed to protect receivers, return men, and quarterbacks.

At this stage, running backs must feel like sacrificial lambs, devoid of the protective umbrella that envelops virtually every other ball carrier.

Admit it: when Packers receiver Donald Driver got lit up on a second-quarter incompletion, you half-expected to see a flag because Driver was potentially a "defenseless" receiver.

All of this brings us back to the Patriots, whom we all believe will be implementing a newer, more aggressive defense when they take the field Monday night against Miami in their 2011 opener. Thankfully, Chad Henne will be the opposing quarterback. Then again, this is the same Henne whom Miami coach Tony Sparano empowered to throw 52 passes (for 335 yards and two touchdowns) against the Patriots in a 22-21 win two seasons ago.

Henne was sacked one time that day -- again, in 52 attempts -- for a loss of seven yards. He completed 29 passes, or an extremely modest 55.8 percent. As much as any game in recent Patriots history, that game illustrated both the difficulties of playing defense in the newer NFL and the Patriots' problems in adjusting to it.

So what has happened since? The Patriots have revamped their secondary around Devin McCourty, whose rookie season last year suggests that he is the best cover corner in New England since Asante Samuel. Head coach Bill Belichick has rebuilt his defensive line with people like Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, and Albert Haynesworth, among others, all while casting off people like Ty Warren (a renowned run stopper), Darius Butler (who couldn't cover), and Brandon Meriweather (whose best talent is hitting).

Makes perfect sense doesn't it? In today's NFL, after all, you really don't need to stop the run and you really can't hit anyone anymore. If you can't cover, you can't play.

Maybe that's why last night's game looked like BC-Miami during Thanksgiving week in 1984, both teams moving up and down the field with relative ease and the game ending with Saints running back Mark Ingram getting stuffed by the Packers defense on fourth-and-goal from the Green Bay 1-yard line.

In retrospect, was that good defense or merely a bad play call? Earlier in the second half, after all, the Saints had a similar situation deep in Green Bay territory and elected to throw, the ball landing incomplete with the Saints trailing at the time, 35-27. Saints coach Sean Payton clearly had little confidence in his running game then, which makes it all the more curious that he would then choose to run on the final play of the game.

As for the Packers, let the record show that their defense is being praised today for coming up with a pair of big "stops" in a game during which the Saints accumulated 34 points and 477 yards.

But then, in the modern NFL, that is what qualifies as good defense.

In recent years, of course, the Patriots have been unable to provide even that, which is why they have not won a playoff game during that span. Since the start of the 20908 season, the Pats rank 17th among the 32 NFL teams in defensive passer rating, which is to say they have been, at best, mediocre. Last year, during a 14-2 season, they were 13th. Mark Sanchez, of all people, carved them up for 194 yards, three touchdowns, and a 127.3 passer rating in the divisional playoffs, which was the straw that broke the camel's back with regard to Belichick's read-and-react style of defense.

In the modern NFL, as the Packers and Saints proved again last night, reading-and-reacting means tackling the receiver after a 12-yard gain. Sadly, that has proven true around the league whether the opposing quarterback is Brees, Rogers, Henne, or Sanchez. As a defense now, you have to take some chances, force the issue, create turnovers. If you're lucky, as the Packers were last night, you might produce a couple of fourth-down situations in which the opposition proves to vomit on itself.

In the most secure and trusted corners of his world, Belichick, of all people, must positively despise this. He made his bones in the NFL as a defensive mastermind, a title he took with him to New England when he arrived here as head coach in 2000. From 2001 through 2007, the Patriots overall ranked second in the NFL in defensive passer rating. During that span, the Pats won three Super Bowls and four AFC championships, coming within a whisker of the only 19-0 season in NFL history.

Since that time, as we all know, Belichick's defense grew old (in more ways than one) and outdated, truths that have been on display every weekend from September through December over the last four years. When they really needed to, the Pats simply couldn't stop anyone. Now Belichick has morphed, as good coaches do, and so the rest of the league should be advised that the inimitable coach of the Patriots has caught up.

Nonetheless, the challenge before Belichick and the Patriots remains more considerable that we might be estimating.

As last night further proved, after all, good defense in the NFL has an entirely new meaning.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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