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They put squeeze on Roethlisberger

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By Greg A. Bedard
November 15, 2010

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PITTSBURGH — It wasn’t going to work.

It wasn’t going to cut it.

The Patriots entered last night’s game against the Steelers with 13 sacks.

Green Bay’s Clay Matthews — a 3-4 outside linebacker the Patriots passed on in the 2009 draft — has 10 1/2 in eight games.

The Patriots were on pace for 26, which would have been the lowest in a season since Dick MacPherson went 2-14 in his final season as coach in 1992.

That was so long ago Bill Parcells and Pete Carroll had yet to coach the Patriots.

The Patriots weren’t going anywhere without getting more hits on the quarterback, whether Bill Belichick — Mr. Sacks-and-statistics-are-overrated — wanted to acknowledge it publicly.

Privately he did, with the pressure-filled game plan he unveiled to the team Monday after the Patriots didn’t even hit Colt McCoy in the Browns’ dismantling of the Patriots a week ago.

Energized by the new game plan, Belichick’s defense answered the call.

The Patriots had a season-high five sacks as they hurried, harassed, and wreaked havoc on Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ offense in an emphatic 39-26 victory at Heinz Field last night.

“We came in Monday and he had put stuff in,’’ linebacker Jerod Mayo said of Belichick’s game plan. “We were excited to see that we were going to bring some pressure. Hopefully we’ll do that again next week.’’

Oh yes, next week and Mr. Unsackable himself, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

He and they can wait.

Roethlisberger completed 17 of 34 for 201 yards and a touchdown when the game was put out of reach at 29-10 with 8:32 left in the fourth quarter, before his final numbers were pumped up in garbage time.

Throw in an interception, which was returned for a game-clinching touchdown by safety James Sanders, and you have one miserable outing for an elite quarterback.

Gee, isn’t it amazing what a pass rush can do for a beleaguered secondary?

Entering last night, the Patriots were 29th in pass defense. They had allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 70.1 percent of their passes. That’s an absurd statistic. And the quarterbacks who combined to do it were Carson Palmer, Mark Sanchez, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chad Henne, Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers, a battered Brett Favre, and McCoy. Only Rivers of the Chargers can be considered anywhere near elite.

But against the only quarterback they’ve faced with a Super Bowl ring (two at that), the Patriots were able to control the game.

The reason? Constant and unrelenting pressure.

“[The pass defense] is way better,’’ Mayo said. “I think the pressure really helped a lot.’’

Said outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain: “There was definitely an emphasis [on pass rush] this week.’’

New England brought some creative blitzes, as having safety Patrick Chung back from injury allowed it to do some different things.

But at the end of it, the Patriots just won more one-on-one battles up front, which is what they’ll need to continue to do.

Defensive end Mike Wright was exceptional with a 1 1/2 sacks. Gary Guyton (1 sack) and Gerard Warren (half a sack) chipped in, too.

But the best sign for the Patriots — long term — is that they got two combined sacks from their outside linebackers as Banta-Cain (1 1/2) and Shawn Crable (one half) each got a piece of Roethlisberger.

Patriots outside linebackers had 3 1/2 sacks in the first eight games.

It’s very hard for a 3-4 team, even in a two-gap system such as the Patriots, to win getting such little production from their outside backers. They’re supposed to be the best pass rushers on the team.

The last time the Patriots had fewer than 30 sacks in a season was Belichick’s first in 2000, when they had 29.

“Always,’’ Banta-Cain said, when asked if outside linebackers needed to get after the quarterback more. “As outside linebackers we have pride in setting the edge in the running game and getting after the quarterback when it comes to passing situations. It’s something as the season goes along that we’ve got to get better at.’’

Entering last night, outside linebackers had accounted for 26.9 percent of the team’s sack total.

You have to go back to ’02 to find such a low ratio for Patriots outside linebackers (5 of 33, 15 percent). They went 9-7 that season and didn’t make the playoffs.

It is similar to the Super Bowl season of ’01 (11 of 38, 28.2 percent). But when the Patriots were more dominating on defense, the outside linebackers were doing damage. Sack percentages for outside linebackers were 47.6 in ’03 and 51.1 in ’04.

The Steelers have always relied on their outside rushers in their one-gap 3-4 scheme (the Patriots like bigger and taller players that can take care of two gaps).

They had gotten 48 percent of their sacks this season from outside linebackers. Going back to 2000, they’ve never had less than 35 percent of their sacks from guys such as Joey Porter or Jason Gildon, and now James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

After last night, Patriots outside linebackers account for 30.5 percent.

Before anybody starts touting the Patriots’ pass rush is back, let’s keep in mind that the Steelers only had two regular starters (center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard Trai Essex) on their offensive line. Without left tackle Max Starks, left guard Chris Kemoeatu, and right tackle Willie Colon (preseason injury), the Steelers weren’t even an average offensive line last night.

And losing wide receiver Hines Ward (concussion) early on obviously limited Roethlisberger’s options and allowed the Patriots to clamp down on receiver Mike Wallace and tight end Heath Miller.

But after not touching McCoy last week, the Patriots put up five sacks and an additional two quarterback hits. It’s an improvement, and they’re going to need to do more.

“We don’t look at statistics, we look at wins,’’ Banta-Cain said. “But obviously something we’ve been talking about was getting better third-down production, getting more sacks. It’s not something we overly dwell on but it’s something we’re always conscious of and want to get better at. Tonight was a good step.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com.

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