Commentary

Patriots defense takes a step back

Unit has poor showing against St. Louis Rams in preseason loss

Updated: August 27, 2010, 8:00 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Bill Belichick didn't say much after the New England Patriots' disappointing 36-35 preseason loss to the visiting St. Louis Rams, but this said it all: "In a game of no defense, we played less."

That sums it up succinctly.

Surely, reading too much into preseason games is dangerous business, but if what transpired defensively Thursday night at Gillette Stadium was no simply big deal, it's hard to imagine Belichick would have been so surly in his postgame remarks. He looked furious.

Then there was this from cornerback Darius Butler, who said on Twitter: "I played like HOT GARBAGE."

Butler wasn't the only one. This one stunk.

The main question after the surprising turn of events: "What's up with the defense?

"It was bad, all around," safety James Sanders said after the Rams -- led by rookie quarterback Sam Bradford -- held a 43:46 to 16:14 time-of-possession advantage. "Any time you have an offense that's moving up the field at will, it's demoralizing."

How bad was it? Consider that Patriots starters played into the third quarter and were carved up not only by No. 1 overall draft pick Bradford, but also Thaddeus Lewis, a rookie free-agent out of Duke who engineered a 16-play touchdown drive that chewed up 9 minutes, 19 seconds.

Thaddeus Lewis?

The performance brought back some painful Patriots memories of how the overmatched defense was steamrolled by the Baltimore Ravens in last year's playoffs. Only this was the Rams, who were 1-15 last season.

Maybe that's why defensive lineman Vince Wilfork was nowhere to be found after the game, and the normally accessible Tully Banta-Cain declined comment. There was nothing good to talk about.

Linebacker Jerod Mayo, the unit's captain, stepped forward to do the dirty postgame work.

"Not smart football. It wasn't the way we've been playing and the way we've been practicing," Mayo said when asked what message Belichick delivered the defense. "It wasn't Patriot-like. Penalties killed us."

So, too, did third down, where the Rams were 11 of 17.

"It kind of drains you a little bit when you make a stop on third down and all of a sudden you see the yellow flag," Mayo said. "After a while, I just started looking for the yellow flag."

The Patriots obviously didn't game-plan much for the Rams -- as evidenced by them staying in their base 3-4 alignment for good portions of the game and experimenting with a sub package with three safeties for the first time -- but Mayo said that wasn't an excuse for what unfolded.

One of the unit's bigger issues from 2009 once again cropped up: no pressure.

Cornerback Leigh Bodden said that when he watched film of Bradford leading up to the game, he saw a young quarterback who seemed badly affected by the opponents' rush. So what does it say about the Patriots -- who started Derrick Burgess and Banta-Cain at the outside linebacker spot that will need to produce added heat this season -- that they could hardly get close to him?

Entering the game, the Patriots had shown flashes of promise defensively. The revamped secondary had been playing with newfound enthusiasm and the front seven was sturdy against the run.

Yet it was one big step back against the Rams, the secondary springing leaks and the front seven having the ball jammed down its throat 41 times. Rookies Devin McCourty and Brandon Spikes, who had been playing beyond their years, seemed to crash back down to earth.

It was the type of performance that made one wonder if the defensive personnel will be good enough for this team to contend.

For what it's worth, Mayo said the unit's confidence isn't shaken. After all, it's just preseason.

"The first two [preseason] games, we played pretty well as a first unit," he said. "We have to take what we saw and use it to get better."

That process starts Friday when players return to Gillette to break down the film.

If Belichick was furious after the game, just imagine what he'll be like re-living the experience.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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