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Patriots turning up pressure

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On Thursday, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked whether his defense has implemented more pressures -- which include any call that brings five or more pass-rushers -- in recent weeks.

He wasn't sure specifically, "I'd have to go back and look and see exactly what the calls were," he said.

As it turns out, the Patriots indeed have turned up the heat over the past four games, sending five or more pass-rushers in 33 percent of drop-back passes in that time, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

That total trumps the 15 percent of drop-back plays that the Patriots sent five or more pass-rushers in the first nine games of the season, the lowest figure in the NFL.

More important than the frequency of pressures, the Patriots have made their rushes count, as no team has yielded a lower total QBR over the past four games when bringing five or more rushers, and the Patriots have held three of four opposing quarterbacks to a QBR under 10.0 on plays facing pressure during that time.

Overall, the QBR of the Patriots' opposing quarterbacks while under pressure over the past four games is just 5.7, a dramatic drop from the 85.6 figure in the first nine games.

Couple that figure with a lower completion percentage (52.0 percent compared to 77.6) and more interceptions (2) than touchdowns allowed (0), and it's difficult to ignore the production the Patriots have generated when sending additional rushers.

The reasoning behind the Patriots' additional pressures could be about giving opponents a different look from what they had shown earlier in the season.

"As the year progresses, you obviously can't stay in the same thing or show everyone the same look," defensive end Rob Ninkovich said Wednesday. "We're just doing a good job of changing some things up and not coming out looking the same every week."

But it also could be tied into the improved play of the secondary, which has benefited from the acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib.

Talib, a talented corner with the ability to match up against an opposing team's wideout, seems to have allowed the Patriots' secondary to incorporate more variables and play more man coverage, which ties into pressure-based defenses.

Prior to leaving Monday night's game against Houston with a hip injury, Talib was tabbed at times to shadow Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson. Throughout the course of 2012, the Patriots generally have played each of their cornerbacks to a particular side of the field, not matching them up to a specific receiver.

Keeping Talib on Johnson was a suggestion of the team's confidence in its new cornerback, and a testament to how this defense has changed in recent weeks.

A secondary capable of playing man coverage can free up a front seven to send additional pressure, and on the flip side, the quicker rushers can get to the quarterback, the less time a cornerback, safety or linebacker is accountable in man coverage.

The Patriots appear to have not only picked up the frequency of their pressures, but found the balance between the secondary and pass-rushers to make those pressures effective.

This Sunday, they'll face a task different from any quarterback they've seen in the past four games. The 49ers' Colin Kaepernick is more athletic than any of the four signal-callers the Patriots have faced in recent weeks, and the 49ers incorporate designed runs for the second-year player.

The threat of Kaepernick's scrambling ability hasn't deterred opponents from sending additional rushers his way, as he has faced five or more rushers on 39.0 percent of his drop-back passes, well above the league average of 29.2 percent.

He also hasn't fared as well when under duress, as he has completed 60 percent of his passes compared to 72.2 when facing just four rushers. Given time and space, Kaepernick has proved he can pick apart a defense, which showed up in a major way back in Week 11 when he torched the Bears' defense, one of the NFL's best.

The Patriots are a game-plan team: They feature new wrinkles each time they take the field, and their strategy and approach are dependent upon each week's opponent.

Evidence of this approach is more easily discovered when examining the team's offense from week to week. We've seen quarterback Tom Brady pick apart a defense with his arm one Sunday, and running back Stevan Ridley follow up with a big game on the ground the next.

A difference in approach from Week 14 against Houston to Week 15 against San Francisco could be reflected in a lower percentage of pressures. Time will tell.

But the recent trend of success suggests that the Patriots aren't just capable of bringing pressure on defense, they're thriving off of it.