Commentary

Simple solution for Patriots' defense

Less complicated game plan leads to improved results

Updated: December 14, 2009, 8:34 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The secret to the Patriots' success on defense Sunday? It was simple.

In the aftermath of a 20-10 triumph over the Carolina Panthers, New England's defensive players suggested that the coaching staff had essentially dumbed down the game plan this week, hoping to eliminate the communication problems that have plagued the unit in recent losses.

Sprinkle in the return of veterans Shawn Springs and James Sanders to the starting lineup, and add a healthy dose of Junior Seau at middle linebacker, and the result was one of the defense's finest all-around outings of the season.

While no one will compare Carolina's offense to that of the Colts or Saints, the Patriots were pleased to limit their opponent to 10 points, easing things for an offense that looked quite out of sync in the first half.

[+] EnlargePatriots Defense
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaSafety James Sanders (36) returned to the starting lineup and had seven tackles, tied for the team high.

"To play well as a secondary, we know we didn't play too good in the last two games that we've played," cornerback Leigh Bodden said. "We wanted to come out and play well and communicate. It's good to move forward. It's good to get those games behind us and just move forward in a positive direction."

In an effort to let the Patriots' natural talents take over, players said, the coaches simplified the game plan, eliminating some of the confusion that had cropped up, particularly in coverage.

Carolina put up 305 yards of total offense but mustered only 14 first downs, and a Patriots defense that had struggled to get off the field in recent weeks limited the Panthers to a 23 percent conversion rate on third down (3-of-13).

"The coaches did an excellent job coming in with an easier game plan than usual," said Patriots defensive captain Jerod Mayo, who joined Sanders with a team-high seven tackles.

"[The game plan was] trying to make sure everyone was on the same page. The previous two games, we had a couple of communication problems. We didn't want that to happen today, and it didn't, so job well done for the coaches."

The Panthers did generate their only touchdown -- a 41-yard reception by Steve Smith -- off a miscommunication between Springs and safety Brandon Meriweather in the first quarter. But the Patriots limited Carolina to three points over the final 47:43 of play.

Players reveled in just playing football and not worrying about multilayered coverage schemes.

"You get to have fun," Meriweather said. "When you don't have to think and make checks, you just have fun. It's like when you were a kid in the backyard. You never had a play or thought about it."

The Panthers punted on five of their first six possessions, with the touchdown drive (only two plays -- a 7-yard run and the Smith score) starting at the Patriots' 48 after a Tom Brady interception.

The Patriots' defense also stopped a potential scoring trek late in the first half that ended with the Panthers' missing a 53-yard field goal. New England promptly marched the other way for their only touchdown of the first half.

The Panthers had only four second-half drives, settling for a field goal, two punts and a turnover on downs with little more than 100 yards of total offense for the final two quarters.

What's more, New England also overcame injuries to two starters on the defensive line, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork, both of whom hurt an ankle. Titus Adams, signed Wednesday to the active roster from the practice squad, stepped in and filled Pro Bowl-sized shoes at nose tackle.

The absence of Adalius Thomas, a healthy scratch after an eventful week in which he was sent home for being late Wednesday, was hardly noticed, as Pierre Woods took over at starting outside linebacker and registered two tackles. Even Derrick Burgess, who, like Thomas, was disciplined for being late, finished with three tackles and one of New England's two sacks.

For a defense that has been skewered for its poor second-half performances, this was a nice showing.

"In one ear, out the other," Woods said of the pundits. "You can't pay attention to that. I mean, everybody's got something to say."

In the end, winning makes the loudest statement of all.

"Winning solves everything," Springs said. "Winning helps with everything."

Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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