On the rise?

Disparaged, and rightly so, for most of the season, Patriots' defense chooses right time to pick up its game

Vince Wilfork (left), Gerard Warren and the rest of the Patriots defense gained confidence from last Saturday’s win. Vince Wilfork (left), Gerard Warren and the rest of the Patriots defense gained confidence from last Saturday’s win. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / January 20, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - Just as momentum was building for this NFL season to be dubbed “Year of the Offense,’’ with the Packers and Saints able to chase most opponents off the field with the ability to score nearly at will, last weekend’s divisional-round playoff games brought the movement to a halt.

It wasn’t a screeching halt, because that would signal a complete end. It carries on thanks to the Patriots.

Of the four teams that remain in contention for Super Bowl XLVI, three - the Giants, Ravens, and 49ers - are thought of as squads with strong defenses. Only one, the Patriots, is known for offense first.

But for as much as the New England defense has been disparaged - and much of it was warranted - is it getting better at just the right time? Is it no longer the ugly stepsister to Tom Brady and the offense that it once appeared just a month ago?


“It’s all about momentum,’’ said Willie McGinest, a former Patriot who now works as an analyst for the NFL Network. “You can’t really look at what went on in the regular season. It just doesn’t matter. You have to look at what they’ve done going into the playoffs and moving forward.

“The defense has shown signs that they can stop people and play good late in games. What they have to do is come out of the gate and slow teams down and stop teams in the beginning. They’ve been fine after the half, third quarter, fourth quarter, coming out and stopping teams, but I think they have to be able to do that for four quarters, win that turnover battle of course, we always say that, and give that offense as many opportunities as they can to have that ball and to score points.’’

New England did get off to a much better start last Saturday night against Denver than it had down the stretch, forcing a turnover on the Broncos’ first possession that led to the Patriots’ second touchdown.

Defensive anchor Vince Wilfork believes that confidence is needed, and something the Patriots haven’t always had this season.

“I think the more confidence you can play with, the better the outcome will be,’’ Wilfork said. “We get in trouble when we think too much. It’s a tough defense at times, but that’s how Bill [Belichick] runs his ship . . . Problems we had, we tried to correct them, and for the most part we did. As the game starts moving, I think you start seeing guys make more plays because of the confidence level, believing what they see, just believing what they’ve seen on film, trusting their technique. The more we can play with confidence, the better we’ll be.’’

McGinest agrees, and believes that part of the Patriots’ problems this season stemmed from the changes Belichick made, going from the 3-4 defense he’d refined for years to a 4-3 that was more suited to his personnel, particularly Albert Haynesworth.

Add in the loss of a player like James Sanders, whom McGinest remembered as a leader in the secondary even for the one season they played together, a lack of talent in some areas, injuries, and all of the players having to learn new concepts, and it led to a host of difficulties.

There is no denying that the Patriots’ effort against the Broncos, limiting them to 252 total yards (they had given up well over 400 per game in the regular season) was one of their best of the season. Denver, however, is unlike any team in the NFL, with a quarterback who is unconventional at best.

Containing Tim Tebow requires a different game plan, and the Patriots certainly were ready for him last week. Baltimore and whichever team the Patriots would face if they move on would pose different threats.

The Ravens are a conundrum: potentially dangerous but almost predictable.

Greg Cosell of NFL Films, who may watch as much game film on a week-to-week basis as most coaches, warns that fans shouldn’t get too excited about the Patriots’ performance against the Broncos, and reveals some interesting tidbits about the Ravens.

“The Ravens are a very odd pass game. They’ve got a quarterback who can throw it as well as any quarterback in the league in [Joe] Flacco, but their pass game is very limited conceptually and tactically; it’s not hard to tactically defend,’’ Cosell said. “So it comes down to people. Is it possible that [Devin] McCourty can get beat by Torrey Smith on a go route? Of course that’s possible. McCourty’s been beat this year. So I can’t sit here and tell you, ‘Gee, they’re going to shut down the Ravens,’ but the Ravens are not hard to defend tactically.’’

Against the Texans last Sunday, Cosell counted just eight snaps when Baltimore used its third receiver, Lee Evans, a number that’s nearly unheard of these days. For comparison, the Patriots had four receivers - Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, and Tiquan Underwood - play at least 10 snaps against the Broncos, plus tight ends Rob Gronkowski, who played all 66 snaps, and Aaron Hernandez, who was on for 57.

But Flacco, whom many consider to be the wild card in this game, is a good passer, and the Ravens have the dynamic Ray Rice, who was both their leading rusher and leading receiver.

Cosell has quickly taken a liking to Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes, whom he called “arguably the most physical and violent inside linebacker’’ in the NFL, and his return to the field three weeks ago, along with the return of safety Patrick Chung, have made a difference.

McGinest believes that even the best defenses have to have solid offenses, which would tip things in the Patriots’ favor.

“Your best defense sometimes is your offense,’’ he said, “so I look at Tom Brady and that offense and say, can they control the time of possession? Yes. Can they score a lot of points? Yes. Can they limit opposing offenses and make them one-dimensional because you score so many points, you make certain offenses one-dimensional? Yes.’’

Cosell believes the Patriots’ defense is good enough to beat the Ravens, and the 49ers if they are the Super Bowl opponent. . The Giants, however, would cause greater problems because they have three effective receivers.

But that’s later, and as Belichick likes to say, the focus is this week.

So perhaps the opinion that matters most when it comes to the Patriots’ defense is that of Cam Cameron, the Ravens’ offensive coordinator.

“This is an underrated defense,’’ Cameron said yesterday. “I am sure they probably feel that way. We look at the tape, and it’s the healthiest it’s been, and it’s a defense that’s playing its best football right now.’’

The “Year of the Offense’’ may carry on - with help from the Patriots’ defense.

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

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