Defenders in a tight spot

FOXBOROUGH -- The NFL's increased focus on protecting quarterbacks, which is in the spotlight after Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis' roughing-the-passer rant Sunday at Gillette Stadium, has resulted in more penalties through four weeks of the season.

Referees have called 22 roughing-the-passer penalties through Monday night's game between the Packers and Vikings.

Compare that with 18 roughing-the-passer penalties through the first four full weeks in 2008.

The overall numbers, which were tracked by ESPN's Stats & Information team, might seem a bit on the low side to New England fans, considering that of the 22 roughing-the-quarterback penalties this season, six have come in games involving the Patriots.

From a Patriots perspective, it's been an even split.

New England defenders have been flagged for three roughing-the-passer penalties -- defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (low hit) and linebacker Adalius Thomas (slamming the quarterback to the ground) in the season opener, and defensive lineman Mike Wright (hands to the face) in Sunday's win over the Ravens.

(Wright's penalty Sunday against the Ravens was not called as roughing the passer, but instead as unnecessary roughness. Because Wright made contact with the quarterback's head, the assumption is that it will be changed to roughing the passer.)

Meanwhile, referees have penalized Patriots opponents three times -- Falcons defensive end Jamaal Anderson (not pulling up after the ball was thrown), Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (hands to the face) and Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs (low hit).

Lewis, who is likely to be fined for criticizing the officiating by calling the penalties on Ngata and Suggs "embarrassing," feels the NFL has taken its protection of quarterbacks too far. He suggested that if this is the way the league wants to protect its stars, it might as well put a flag on all quarterbacks and have defenders pull it instead of tackling them.

Debate has been fiery on both sides.

In one respect, the NFL is a better product when stars such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are on the field, so giving all players at the position added protection is smart business.

On the flip side, it seems that better judgment could be used on throwing some penalty flags. Specific to Patriots games, Wilfork's form tackle in the season opener and Anderson's slight tap of Brady come to mind.

Proactive steps to ensure player safety this season have been taken across the board -- the elimination of the three-man wedge on kickoff returns is one recent example -- but no change has drawn more attention than what has been implemented for quarterbacks.

Unlike in past years, referees are instructed to throw penalty flags for what is deemed to be forcible contact -- a forearm, shoulder or helmet -- into the knee or below.

Some call it the "Tom Brady rule" because it was implemented in the season after the low hit absorbed by Brady that tore up his knee. That hit by former Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard wasn't a penalty in 2008. It would be this year.

The change has put pass-rushers in a tight spot.

"Sometimes when you are going after a quarterback, you don't have time to think 'Oh wait, I'm too high or I'm too low to his knees.' Sometimes you are like 'I just have to get to the guy'," said Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who is second on the team with two quarterback sacks.

"It takes a lot out of you because just getting to the passer is like a fight every time," added veteran Derrick Burgess, the Patriots' pass-rush specialist. "Once you get there, you have to know exactly where to hit him. You may have to break down, but if you break down, the guy might duck you. So it makes our job a little harder."

Just as the NFL is attempting to strike a balance between protecting its quarterbacks while not going too far, pass-rushers are trying to find that same middle ground in their own way.

The Patriots -- involved in those six roughing-the-passer penalties out of the 22 called so far -- have found themselves smack dab in the middle of the hot-button issue.

"The past four games, there have been a lot of calls, so it's something we have to pay attention to but not let it slow us down," Banta-Cain said. "It's something where you don't want your defenders playing too tentative or thinking too much about how to hit a quarterback because you could lose the aggression.

"In the end, I think there are situations where you can show a little less malice on the guy. If you have a free shot on the quarterback, back in the days, you'd be like, 'I want to take his head off,' whereas now, you have to be a little more cautious because it could cost you a 15-yard penalty.

"I think for a defensive guy, we have to play like we have always played but just know that the refs are watching. So when you do get that free shot, make it count where you are supposed to hit him."

Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.