De­fense makes strides, as usual

Boston Herald - - NHL / NBA SCOREBOARD / RACING - PA­TRI­OTS BEAT Karen Gure­gian Twit­ter: @kgure­gian

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Six weeks ago, the Pa­tri­ots de­fense was caus­ing an ex­treme case of panic for those who counted on the de­fend­ing Su­per Bowl cham­pi­ons once again be­ing le­git­i­mate con­tenders.

Be­tween all the big plays, the wide-open re­ceivers, the video-game amount of points that were be­ing racked up ev­ery week, the worry me­ter was at an all-time high.

And when line­backer Dont’a Hightower, one of the unit’s few stars, went down with a sea­son-end­ing in­jury, that seemed like the fi­nal straw.

Only, we should have known bet­ter.

This is the way it works with teams coached by Bill Belichick. Throw in the towel if you want. Call them one of the worst de­fenses in NFL his­tory, which is where they were headed, but they’ll fig­ure it out at some point. Belichick and de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Matt Pa­tri­cia have been down this road too many times.

Sure, it was stun­ning to see all the break­downs and mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion early on. It didn’t seem like there was any­thing they could do to right the prob­lem given their lack of play­mak­ers, par­tic­u­larly in the front seven.

But they have. They al­ways do.

Granted, they’re not the 1985 Bears. But even­tu­ally it all comes to­gether to a point where they can com­ple­ment Tom Brady, which is the goal.

“Hey, it was a big con­cern to me early be­cause you don’t want to lose AFC games. Even the mighty Pa­tri­ots can have doubts cast upon them,” for­mer Pats safety and cur­rent NBC an­a­lyst Rod­ney Har­ri­son said. “But I knew they’d sim­plify things and guys would catch on. They al­ways do. I just didn’t en­vi­sion them play­ing this well for this ex­tended pe­riod of time.”

Af­ter the first four weeks, the Pa­tri­ots were dead last in the NFL, al­low­ing an av­er­age of 32 points per game. In five games since, that same de­fense has al­lowed just 13.4 points per game. Den­ver marked the fifth straight game in which the Pats al­lowed 17 or less points.

Sure, they’re still 32nd in the NFL in to­tal yards al­lowed (408.3 per game), but with Belichick de­fenses, points al­lowed is the most im­por­tant statis­tic. In that re­gard, they’re now 14th, av­er­ag­ing 21.7 per game over­all.

Is it per­fect? No. The Pats still give up an oc­ca­sional big play. They still bend like a pret­zel. They still have no pass rush. But they’re do­ing enough to be the right kind of de­fense that works per­fectly with Brady. That’s what hap­pened last year. Even­tu­ally, they got it, and it was good enough to win a Su­per Bowl.

“You can have that bend­but-don’t break men­tal­ity when you have Tom Brady,” Har­ri­son said. “Know­ing you’re go­ing to score a lot of points helps the de­fense and the scheme of the de­fense. That’s why Belichick doesn’t care if he gives up 400 or 500 yards of to­tal of­fense or if a team moves the ball up and down the field and kicks field goals be­cause they know in their back pocket, they have Brady and that of­fense.”

In Sun­day night’s 41-16 win, the Pats forced the Bron­cos to kick two field goals in the red zone out of three at­tempts.

The Pats de­fend­ers all talk about im­prov­ing week to week and still are not as good as they hope to be. The com­mu­ni­ca­tion is­sues that plagued them early aren’t as ob­vi­ous. They’re much bet­ter at stop­ping the run, which makes them bet­ter in the red zone.

“If you’re in De­cem­ber and your de­fense is ranked dead last, then you have prob­lems,” tele­vi­sion an­a­lyst Solomon Wil­cots said. “But if you go back and look, they get bet­ter as the sea­son goes on. They make ad­just­ments, they’re al­ways tweak­ing, and they’re not afraid to bench peo­ple who don’t pro­duce.

“That’s how it goes in New Eng­land.”

Belichick and Pa­tri­cia just keep work­ing with the parts and coach­ing them up.

As presently con­sti­tuted, it’s not a de­fense loaded with su­per­stars. Cor­ner­back Stephon Gil­more is the $65 mil­lion dol­lar as­set, but af­ter him, Su­per Bowl hero Mal­colm But­ler at the other corner and Pro Bowl safety Devin McCourty, it’s a bunch of reg­u­lar guys play­ing roles and do­ing their jobs.

Belichick made a trade last year for Kyle Van Noy, put him in a po­si­tion to suc­ceed, and the line­backer is mak­ing the most of his op­por­tu­nity. There are dozens of sto­ries just like him through the years.

“I think Bill has proven over time that they can win with dif­fer­ent peo­ple, with dif­fer­ent names on the back of the jer­sey. So the sys­tem is maybe more im­por­tant than the sum of its parts,” Wil­cots said. “They teach prin­ci­ples where the av­er­age ath­lete can achieve it. That’s fact. That’s gospel truth. He doesn’t cre­ate a sys­tem that re­quires all-stars to per­form and ex­e­cute what he’s ask­ing them to do.

“That’s why he’s al­ways say­ing, ‘Just do your job.’”

And be­cause they lis­ten to the Hoodie, the de­fense has it worked out.

We should have known.

STAFF PHOTO BY NANCY LANE

IN THE GRASP: Safety Patrick Chung tack­les Bron­cos run­ning back Devon­tae Booker dur­ing the Pats’ win Sun­day night in Den­ver.

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