Commentary

Patriots' defense contains Peyton

New England needed team effort to hold down still-dangerous Broncos QB

Updated: October 8, 2012, 1:30 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick wasn't taking the bait.

His team had just defeated the visiting Denver Broncos on Sunday with a balanced offensive effort that featured scoring drives of 12, 14, 16 and 16 plays, the Patriots dominating the time of possession 35:49 to 24:11. With this in mind, Belichick was asked if the best defense against a potent quarterback, such as Peyton Manning, was to play that type of keep-away game.

It seemed like a reasonable thought. The less time Manning has with the ball, the less damage he can do, right?

Belichick wasn't buying it. Instead, he recalled a 2009 game against the Miami Dolphins in which the Manning-led Indianapolis Colts offense had the ball for 14:53 and still produced a dramatic comeback victory. Since the NFL started keeping track of time of possession in 1977, it was the least amount of time a winning team ever had the ball.

Manning is that lethal, so while keep-away might be nice, it takes more than that.

"It's great to have the ball on offense, it's great to have a long drive, but you still have to go out there and play defense," Belichick said Sunday. "You've got to go out there and stop them."

The Patriots did that well enough to hang on for their second straight victory. No, it wasn't as authoritative of a closing effort as they would have liked -- they led 31-7 with 4:37 remaining in the third quarter before a too-close-for-comfort fourth quarter -- and players will surely be hearing about that in the coming days from the hard-driving Belichick. They had a chance to show more of a killer instinct and didn't.

And the win also included some luck, with wide-open running back Willis McGahee dropping a pass on fourth-and-1 four minutes into the final quarter when a Broncos comeback still wasn't out of the question. That was a gift.

At the same time, let's not overlook what the Patriots' defense did well, as well as some wrinkles they tossed at Manning that produced the desired results.

The best part of the defensive effort? Once again, it was turnovers.

Defensive end Rob Ninkovich had two of the team's three, the closer coming with a powerful strip of McGahee, which was recovered by Patriots defensive lineman Jermaine Cunningham, with just less than four minutes remaining in the game. The Broncos were inside the Patriots' red zone, trailing 31-21 but threatening.

"Being able to go out defensively and actually getting the turnover ourselves, that was a big statement for us," defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said of a unit that carried over momentum after producing six turnovers against the Bills last week. "That's two weeks in a row that we've shown this defense can turn over and get the ball."

[+] EnlargeAlfonzo Dennard
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesRookie Alfonzo Dennard, an unexpected help on defense, celebrates with Tavon Wilson.

No statistic correlates more to winning and losing than turnovers. Under Belichick, the Patriots are 62-2 in games in which they force at least three turnovers.

In addition to the takeaways, the Patriots did two other things to produce some crucial defensive stops -- dialing up a few timely blitzes and mixing and matching personnel. They weren't major changes, but they proved to be effective.

"They had a couple of wrinkles here and there, things that you would expect, but overall not really different," Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme said. "They only brought a few more pressures than they normally do."

The turning point came midway through the second quarter with the Patriots leading 14-7. After Manning had shredded them on an 80-yard touchdown drive, the Patriots altered the look of their nickel package (five defensive backs) on the next series, replacing cornerback Sterling Moore with rookie Alfonzo Dennard. They also went lighter up front with ends Ninkovich, Cunningham and Trevor Scott joining big body Ron Brace up front.

That look gave the Patriots more speed on the line -- a grouping they used for only one drive before returning to their regular personnel -- and something different for Manning to digest. Manning would later regret missing Tamme on a second-and-5 throw from the Patriots' 39-yard line, then Dennard emerged with a break-up over the middle on a third-down pass intended for receiver Brandon Stokley.

Those two plays were a good snapshot of the overall defensive effort -- at times the Broncos bailed the Patriots out with a lack of execution, but other times, the Patriots made the plays.

The presence of Dennard, the seventh-round draft choice out of Nebraska who hadn't played this season prior to Sunday, was a surprise. His breakup forced a rare punt, which the Patriots turned into a clock-churning 16-play, 93-yard drive that resulted in a field goal with 2 seconds remaining in the half.

Belichick, who noted Dennard's positive contributions afterward, felt that was when the game turned.

"It was kind of a big swing there at the end of the half, really good clock management," he said.

The teams traded punts to start the third quarter, before the Patriots sandwiched touchdowns around a Ninkovich strip sack. At that point, the Patriots were up 31-7.

So no, it wasn't as strong a finish as they would have liked, but the defense will take it.

Turnovers. Timely stops. Personnel tweaks. A few X's-and-O's wrinkles with blitzes.

This was more than just a game of keep-away. The Patriots' defense, while vulnerable at times, did its part too.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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