Commentary

Patriots' defense comes together

New England's maturing unit shuts down Jets by believing in each other

Updated: December 7, 2010, 11:06 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Another win for the New England Patriots, another step forward for the growing-on-the-job defense.

It is a unit that has been told all season that it's not good enough, with the focus almost always on what it is lacking. The Patriots don't have a feared pass rusher like other top teams. There is no shutdown corner. They are without a Troy Polamalu-type safety.

But captains Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo aren't interested in focusing on what the Patriots don't have. They'd rather focus on what they do, and Wilfork believes the strength of the wolf is in the pack.

[+] EnlargeJerod Mayo
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonJerod Mayo (51), Tully Banta-Cain and the rest of the Pats' defense put the hurt to Jets QB Mark Sanchez.

"What we do best, we play together," Wilfork said following the Patriots' resounding 45-3 victory over the New York Jets in which the much-maligned defense more than held up its end of the bargain. "I think that's one thing this defense does have."

Statistics be damned; when a defense has "each other," it can be a powerful force.

It's a trust, knowing that the player lined up next to you will be in the right spot. It's seeing the player at the next locker working just as hard as you. Or realizing that when adversity strikes the only way to dig out of it is to focus that much more, and then everyone banding together to do just that.

The Patriots unleashed their "each other" on the Jets on Monday night. It might not show up on the highlights like a Polamalu game-changing strip sack, but it's effective in a different way. It can wear down the opposition, forcing it into mistakes.

"I have been saying since six weeks ago that this defense has been taking steps forward and guys have really been stepping up," said Mayo, who is on pace for a 200-tackle season. "I like the direction that we're going in."

Mayo specifically pointed to rookie cornerback Devin McCourty and linebacker Brandon Spikes, who delivered third-quarter interceptions to essentially end the game. Veteran safety James Sanders added a third pick later in the fourth quarter, as the Patriots improved to 9-0 this season when they win the turnover battle. They are 79-3 with a positive turnover differential since 2001.

Coaches talk all the time about the importance of turnovers. Yet those statistics speak louder than what any coach could say.

Tunrovers are what the Patriots' defense thrives on. It's a defense that will give up yards but has shown a knack for coming up with big stops in critical situations.

"The only thing that matters about us is getting wins and getting takeaways, and we've been doing a great job for our offense," Sanders said. "We played a solid game defensively for 60 minutes and you see what happened."

The Jets and quarterback Mark Sanchez helped too, playing their worst game of the season by far. If only they could have played as decisively as they talked leading up to the game.

Still, that shouldn't take away from what the Patriots' defense accomplished. The players executed Bill Belichick's game plan masterfully.

"What he put in was very effective," Wilfork said of Belichick's X's and O's work.

"Against an offense like this, that has weapons, you have to do something different every play. We tried to do that. Our goal was to keep it moving, different looks, disguise. Show them one thing, get out of it, just make them work for it."

Patriots defensive backs said another part of the plan was to get physical with receivers Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards, as well as tight end Dustin Keller, limiting their free releases off the line of scrimmage.

That's why rookie inside linebacker Dane Fletcher was part of a 3-4 alignment on the outside, his assignment to make life tough on Keller. That didn't exactly produce the desired result, with the Jets running right at the undersized Fletcher at times and forcing the Patriots out of that package.

But as they did most of the night, the Patriots had the right counter-move on defense. It helped that two of their more impressive newcomers delivered big plays, with McCourty generating a buzz among defenders afterward in totaling his sixth pick of the season, which is the second-highest total in franchise history for a rookie behind only Mike Haynes (eight in 1976).

Teammates see a budding star in McCourty, someone who could develop into a shutdown type option that tilts the field because teams will stop throwing in his direction. McCourty's third-quarter pick was textbook -- running stride for stride with Edwards deep down the right sideline before turning to locate the ball as he noticed Edwards going for the ball.

"As a rookie, he's probably playing the best in the league at his position, hands down," Wilfork said. "I'd put him up against any corner that you throw at me. He is a hell of a football player and he's going to get better and better. He's been making some great plays for us."

He's not alone. After 12 games, there has been enough evidence to definitively state that the power of "each other" is what defines this defense. When the team gets away from it, there are breakdowns like what happened Nov. 7 in Cleveland. When it captures it, it can hold a team like the Jets to three points.

"Everyone defensively has been doing their part," Wilfork said. "Sometimes people look at it and say, 'You don't have any great players on defense. You have good players and you have average players.' But if all of us make one play a game, that's a bunch of big plays.

"We don't need one great guy on our defense," Wilfork continued. "We need a bunch of good guys that are willing to do what it takes to win and know what they're doing. I'll take that any time."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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