Commentary

Defense comes up with big plays in win

Updated: September 19, 2011, 1:37 AM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If I told you the New England Patriots defense gave up 470 total yards and allowed the San Diego Chargers to convert on 83 percent of their third-down opportunities (10 of 12), and then stopped there without providing any additional details, what chance would you have given the Pats to pull out a victory?

Funny thing about this defense. They give up too many yards, too many points, yet their coach believed in them enough to go for it on fourth-and-4 from the 49-yard line at a critical juncture of the game.

"That meant a lot,'' Patriots safety Sergio Brown said. "For Coach [Bill] Belichick to have that kind of trust in us really tells you something.''

What it tells us about Brown and Devin McCourty and Vince Wilfork and the boys on the other side of the ball is they are a work in progress, a flawed, yet resilient crew who has been able thus far to conjure up a big play to override some disconcerting breakdowns that persist in cropping up.

Consider the aforementioned fourth-and-4 attempt by the Patriots early in the fourth quarter. At the time, their punter Zoltan Mesko was on the sidelines with an injured knee. And, when Tom Brady's pass to Deion Branch bounced off the receiver's hands, the Chargers, down just 20-14 at the time, were handed optimal field position and a chance to take the lead.

Instead, as fullback Mike Tolbert went trolling for a hole in the line, Wilfork tripped him up, Jerod Mayo leveled him with a hit and linebacker Rob Ninkovich alertly pounded on the the ball when it squirted free. Four plays later, the Patriots were in the end zone.

For now, those electric moments will have to be enough. Despite relinquishing an average of 479 total yards and 22.5 points over the first two games, the stat that really matters -- a 2-0 record -- is the one the defense prefers to highlight.

When you generate four turnovers, you can afford to have a few lapses here and there.

"Obviously, we care [that we're giving up so much yardage],'' said Mayo, who submitted a superb game that included 11 tackles. "But first and foremost, we got a win.''

The Patriots can thank Mayo, their young defensive leader, for that. It was Mayo who stuffed Tolbert early in the game when the Chargers went for on fourth-and-goal from the 1. Ten plays -- and 99 yards -- later the Patriots scored a touchdown and took a 17-7 lead.

[+] EnlargeJerod Mayo
Elsa/Getty ImagesJerod Mayo celebrates after stopping Mike Tolbert short of the goal line in the second quarter.

That's what both Mayo and Wes Welker termed "complementary football.'' The defense makes a big play, and the offense transforms that into points.

It happened repeatedly in this football game.

There was no more colorful example than when Wilfork tipped a Philip Rivers pass to Tolbert, gathered in his first career interception, then rumbled 28 yards down the field protecting the football as though it was a newborn child.

That led to a Stephen Gostkowski 47-yard field goal and a chance for Wilfork to have bragging rights for the week.

"We talk a lot around here about who is better, defensive or offense, who can play what position,'' said the big nose tackle. "I'm pretty sure they would have let me have it if I were to have dropped that ball. Now I can talk smack to them.''

Turnovers, we learned in the Patriots' locker room late Sunday, was a popular topic during the course of the week. Belichick emphasized the need for the defense to generate more of them.

"Turnovers are huge,'' said Ninkovich. "It's a mindset, really. It instantly changes the momentum.''

Ninkovich conceded the defense cannot continue to give up so much yardage. At some point, he agreed, an adept opponent will capitalize on it.

"When they keep converting on third down, it tends to wear on you,'' Ninkovich admitted. "Teams are going to keep picking on us until we fix it.''

The Patriots' secondary was dismantled, then reassembled before the season started, with familiar names such as Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders and Darius Butler released, significantly increasing the responsibilities of Sergio Brown, McCourty and Ras-I Dowling.

Although they are not yet household names in New England, that crew targeted Antonio Gates with double coverage and limited him to zero catches. Gates said the Patriots flummoxed his team with a host of "different looks.''

"It was a combination of things that made it difficult for me to release off the ball,'' Gates said.

The extra attention on the ever-dangerous Gates left Vincent Jackson (10 catches, 172 yards) free to run amok, and he burned McCourty twice on touchdowns. McCourty conceded he "blew some plays,'' but stressed the turnovers were "game changers'' for his team.

"You start the season against a guy like Brandon Marshall, and then this week it's Philip Rivers and Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd ...'' McCourty said wistfully. "We've got to keep getting better. Consistency. That's what I'm after. That's what we're after.''

McCourty was not without his own shining moments. He had a hand in the successful goal line stand when he cleared out fullback Jacob Hester so Mayo could slide in and make the hit.

The Super Bowl Patriots developed a reputation as a "bend but don't break'' defense that often gave up yards, but managed to deliver timely turnovers that turned the game around. This defense hopes to follow that model all the way to Indianapolis in February, but they are a long way from declaring themselves worthy of such lofty goals.

"I'm not familiar with any bend-and-break scenario,'' defensive lineman Kyle Love said. "We're just trying to play the same way. Whether we give up 100 yards or 300 yards, we're not going to worry about that.''

"A lot of people may say 'We gave up this many points, we gave up this many yards,' but that's a good football team we played, and we beat them today,'' said Wilfork.

The defense has work to do. That was acknowledged across the board in the Patriots' locker room. As long as the wins keep coming, the work in progress is a perfectly acceptable bend-but-don't-break strategy. But if those losses start cropping up along with the inconsistencies, that will change in a hurry.

Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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