EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 26, 2009

Defense steals the show

Bill Burt

Your 2009 New England Patriots officially have an identity.

They're talented and they're tough.

Oh, yeah, and Tom Brady and the offense are good, too.

The Patriots enter the bye week at 5-2 and coming off their biggest back-to-back bashings — a combined 94-7 — since Brady & Co. averaged 49.7 points over a three-game stretch in 2007.

The offensive has kicked in as we saw with yesterday's 35-7 shellacking of the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers at London's Wembley Stadium.

Brady was sharp (23 of 32, 308 yards, 3 TDs), Wes Welker did his thing (10 catches, 107 yards, 1 TD), but points scored don't matter.

With Brady back to doing what he does best, and Welker moving the chains, that is a given.

The Patriots defense was and still is the wild card. And it is time to give this unit their props.

As bad as the Bucs are, and they are pretty bad, and as bad as their quarterbacks are, and Josh Johnson (9 of 26, 156 yards, 3 interceptions) and Josh Freeman (2 of 4, 16 yards) are pretty bad, the defense was still near perfect.

Remember, the defense did yeoman's work in the two losses to the Jets (16-9) and Broncos (20-17 in OT). The problem was the Pats were shut out after halftime in both those games.

Through seven weeks, only the Broncos (11.0) and Colts (12.8) have yielded fewer points per game than the Patriots (14.0).

This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Bill Belichick's defense, which explains why 34-year-old Mike Vrabel was traded and 36-year-old Tedy Bruschi and 36-year-old Rodney Harrison were forced into retirement.

In other words, it was time to move on. Or as the critics noted often the last few seasons, it was time to get younger and more athletic.

They have.

Veteran starters Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren are 27- and 28-years old, respectively, and seven different players in regular or semi-regular roles are 25 or younger.

They are Patrick Chung (22), Jerod Mayo (23), Myron Pryor (23), Gary Guyton (23), Darius Butler (23), Jonathan Wilhite (25) and Brandon Meriweather (25).

Also, Mike Wright (27), Pierre Woods (27) and Brandon McGowan (26) have made their presence felt.

This is a hard defense to figure out. The Pats entered the weekend ranked 20th in rushing yards allowed and sixth in passing yards allowed, yet they are third in points allowed per game.

In fact, this young group has been as physical and tough as any defense Belichick has put on the field since 2004, the third Super Bowl championship team.

Each Sunday, somebody is making a game-turning play.

In the opener against the Bills, it was Meriweather's hit and Woods' rip of the ball on the late kickoff return that got Brady the ball back.

Against the Falcons, McGowan helped hold future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez to one catch and his hit on Michael Turner forced a fumble as they were ready to take their first lead of the game.

Against the Ravens, the game ended with the defense stopping the hottest offense in the NFL at the time (34.5 points per game) on downs inside the Patriots 10-yard line.

Against Titans and Buccaneers it was complete defensive domination, with five interceptions and three fumbles combined, including Meriweather's two interceptions yesterday, the first returned for a score just 2:34 into the game.

That's what good defenses do, score touchdowns.

In 2003 and 2004, the Patriots would win the opening toss, take the ball and then score a touchdown.

The new plan is to win the toss and defer, and get the ball to open the second half. You don't go with that plan unless you believe in your defense.

So while Brady and the offense will get the bulk of the headlines today, the defense deserves them.

They are young, and sooner than expected, they are good.

And with two teams in particular on the schedule — Indianapolis on Nov. 15 and New Orleans on Nov. 30 — they had better be good if the Patriots are truly contenders.

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.