Patriots have been playing help defense

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / August 23, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - At Gillette Stadium, it is verboten to offer a positive assessment of most things, particularly in the preseason.

So while many fans were thrilled with the Patriots’ performance against Tampa Bay last Thursday, when the defense pitched a shutout in the first half and the offense got in the end zone on all but one of its first five possessions, the word out of Foxborough is the Patriots are far from a finished product.

But seeing how the defense has played through two preseason games gives reason to believe it will be a far more effective unit than it was in 2010, and in one area in particular: third down.

It might not be fair to judge the Patriots’ numbers against the Jaguars, who started rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

But against the Buccaneers, New England dominated. Josh Freeman, who completed 61.4 percent of his passes last season for a team that barely missed the playoffs, was pulled from the game (mostly for his own safety) after completing just 5 of 10 passes, being sacked twice, and finding defenders in his face with alarming frequency.

Tampa Bay punted on its first six possessions, with four three-and-outs. For the game, the Bucs converted just 2 of 12 third-down chances.

Last year, the Patriots had the league’s worst success rate defending third downs (47.1 percent). Their best game was at home against the Jets in Week 13, when they stopped New York on 9 of 12 chances.

In short, the pass rush was working in Tampa. And Shaun Ellis and Albert Haynesworth have yet to suit up for a game.

And as the front line improves, things get better for the back end of the defense as well.

“Those guys have been doing a great job up front,’’ cornerback Devin McCourty said. “The pass rush and the secondary, they go hand in hand.

“We can’t be a good secondary without a good pass rush, and they can’t be good at getting after the quarterback if we can’t cover anybody. So I think as good as we can be in both areas, it will help the defense and the team out.’’

New England can seemingly be more aggressive using four down linemen; Andre Carter has improved steadily as he learns the playbook, and Eric Moore is proving to be a solid pickup from last year. It appears that linebacker Jerod Mayo will be free to use his athleticism more, if the Tampa Bay game is any indication.

So is the New England defense, so often described as “bend but don’t break’’ over the last few years, now in attack mode?

“Any football player that’s aggressive loves to attack,’’ nose tackle Vince Wilfork said with a laugh. “So at times it calls for us to attack and at times it calls for us to sit back and play some good technique, but I was always told, when the coach gives you leeway to go make a play, you better make it count.’’

Wilfork said the defense is doing “new things’’, which has created a steeper learning curve for all players. This week there will be a greater emphasis on communication to make sure all players are on the same page.

Asked if he saw receivers changing routes to help the embattled Freeman (and later Josh Johnson), McCourty said, “I noticed that we got sacks. We got some altered throws. As a secondary player, you notice that, and then the best part is when you go back and you get to watch film and we see those guys getting after it up front and getting after the quarterback.’’

McCourty said he’s just trying to keep up his end of the bargain with good coverage. Wilfork feels if the linemen do their job on early downs, everyone could be having fun on third down.

“We have a bunch of guys around here that can play and rush the passer,’’ Wilfork said. “One thing we say around here all the time is ‘stop the run’, so if we can continue to do a good job on first and second down, on third down we can pin our ears back and get after the quarterback a little bit.

“But it’s going to start on first and second down; with the people we have here I think we have a good chance.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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