Shaky effort on defense concerns Pats

Posted Aug. 29, 2010, at 10:36 p.m.

     FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — New England’s defense must get better if the Patriots want to stop Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.

A lot better.

With one exhibition game left before their season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Patriots have plenty to work on after Sam Bradford and the St. Louis Rams held the ball for long stretches, gained chunks of yardage and exploited weaknesses from the defensive line back to the secondary.

The final score Thursday night was 36-35 with the Rams winning on Josh Brown’s 37-yard field goal on the last play — but they dominated the Patriots by a much greater margin.

“(I’m) disappointed in the whole game,” New England coach Bill Belichick said Friday, “regardless of how the last kick turned out.”

His defense couldn’t get off the field quickly and his offense couldn’t stay on it when it eventually got the ball.

The Rams had more than twice as many plays, 84 to 38, and held the ball for a whopping 43 minutes, 46 minutes. The Patriots offense had it for only 16:14, barely more than one quarter.

It may have been an exhibition, but Belichick knows it may be an indication of how the defense will play in the regular season.

“I think that the way your team develops its fundamentals and its foundation in the early part of training camp and the preseason definitely is important in the big picture,” he said. “If it wasn’t, then we wouldn’t do it. But, that being said, there’s certainly a lot of unknowns going into the season.”

Some may involve health issues.

Starting safety Brandon Meriweather left the game after hurting his knee. Cornerback Terrence Wheatley and defensive lineman Ron Brace departed with undisclosed injuries.

Rams wide receiver Donnie Avery tore ligaments in his right knee late in the first half and coach Steve Spagnuolo said Friday “it looks like we’ll lose him for the season.”

Belichick, famously reticent when it comes to discussing injuries, said he couldn’t rule out that any of his players might be in the same category.

“I don’t think I can ever say that, no,” he said. “Sometimes some things look big and they turn out to be not that significant. And then other times you see things that look like they’re not that significant and they turn out to be more than that. So I wouldn’t want to try to speculate on what a medical diagnosis will or won’t be.”

The outlook for the defense is also uncertain heading into next Thursday night’s exhibition finale at the New York Giants.

All three Rams quarterbacks — from No. 1 draft pick Sam Bradford, to undrafted Thaddeus Lewis to 2009 sixth-rounder Keith Null — led scoring drives. They scored on seven of their 11 possessions and converted 11 of their 17 third-down plays.

Second-year cornerback Darius Butler, competing for a starting job, had a particularly rough game.

On the opening series of the third quarter, Lewis led a 15-play drive lasting 9:19. On third-and-9 at the Rams 48, an illegal contact penalty against Butler kept the drive moving. Then, on second-and-7 at the Patriots 20, Lewis completed a pass on the left side to Brandon Gibson, who then faked Butler and ran in for the score.

“I know we’ve got to get better,” Butler said. “I know I’ve got to get better.”

If they do, the Patriots offense will have more chances to move the ball.

They threw just 25 passes, ran 11 times and had 2 sacks Thursday. Tom Brady had an outstanding game, completing 18 off 22 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns, two on acrobatic catches by rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski.

“Even (on) some plays that weren’t that good, there were positive things,” Belichick said.

But for the second straight game running back Laurence Maroney didn’t play, sparking rumblings that he might be out of favor. Belichick shot that notion down.

“Oh, absolutely. I sure do,” he said when asked if Maroney can help the team. “We anticipated playing all the players in the game (but) we had so few plays on offense. … We never had the ball. There were no plays to run.”

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