New England Patriots’ defense overcomes challenges

Posted Dec. 24, 2013, at 5:17 p.m.
The New England Patriots' Rob Ninkovich (50), center, beats the Baltimore Ravens' Michael Oher, right, to sack Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, left, in the second quarter in Baltimore on Sunday.
Kenneth K. Lam | MCT
The New England Patriots' Rob Ninkovich (50), center, beats the Baltimore Ravens' Michael Oher, right, to sack Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, left, in the second quarter in Baltimore on Sunday.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots’ defense, like their offense, battled injury and inconsistent performances all season even as the team was able to churn out 11 wins and a fifth straight AFC East title.

Despite a litany of injuries, including Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork and Pro Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo landing on injured reserve, there remains plenty of fight in coordinator Matt Patricia’s defensive unit. That was on full display Sunday evening in Baltimore in the Patriots 41-7 victory over the Ravens, a rematch of last January’s AFC title game that ended up being New England’s most impressive road victory in years.

New England avoided its fifth road loss of the season with a well-rounded effort in all three phases, but it was the defense that really led the way to victory. The Patriots got after Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco early on, recording three first-half sacks while holding the Ravens to just 34 net yards passing in the first 30 minutes of action.

Baltimore’s six first-half possessions resulted in four punts, an interception and the end of the half. No Ravens drive netted more than 26 yards and three resulted in 5 yards or less.

Rookie Logan Ryan’s first of two interceptions on the day set up New England’s second touchdown drive of the first quarter on the way to the 17-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter.

The defense started well and then finished even better. Ryan added another interception in the second half while Tavon Wilson returned a fourth-quarter pick 74-yard for a touchdown. Chandler Jones added another defensive score when he scooped up an errant shotgun snap in the end zone.

The defense paved the way to the early impressive lead and then put the exclamation point on the rout.

“I just give a lot of credit to the players. They did a good job of really going out to try and execute the game plan, what we were asking them to do. We had a good week of work and practice and it was good to see that kind of show up on Sunday,” Patricia said after breaking down the film from the big win. “I thought the guys really tried to do what we asked them to do and execute at a high level. Certainly, there is going to still be room for improvement and things we are going to try and get better, but it was good to see some of that on the field.”

One of the obvious keys came with the turnovers. New England tied a season high with four takeaways, and a season high with three interceptions. That latter total was more than the Patriots had recorded in the previous five games combined.

There were also key situational plays, such as defensive tackle Sealver Siliga pileup that led to a stop of Ray Rice on a fourth-and-one at the Patriots 4 late in the third quarter.

Siliga, a former practice squader, and the rookie Ryan are just two examples of guys who’ve stepped up in recent weeks for a banged up defense. And of guys who’ll likely continued to be leaned on for a unit looking to raise its game heading into the postseason.

It is and always has been about the next man up in New England. That was even true during the win in Baltimore when defensive captain and safety Devin McCourty was lost early in the second quarter to a concussion.

What’s another Pro Bowler lost to injury on the road against the defending Super Bowl champs?

“I would say at this point in the season it’s not Week 1 anymore. So, I think like everybody that’s on the defense, everyone that sits in the room and goes through the game plan meeting, it doesn’t matter if it’s your first year or your tenth year, we expect everyone to operate at a very professional level and to be ready to go at any time,” Patricia said in easier-said-than-done fashion.

“Knowing the league and how things are every year, I wouldn’t say this is any different. Like they are every year, at any particular time you have to go out there and play and perform. Whether you are out there on the first snap or the seventh or the last, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got to go out and execute at a very high level. That’s kind of just the way we attack it and approach it. Everybody is expected to understand and know the information and be ready to go and play. This season, obviously we’re far enough along that everyone that is active and ready to go in the game we expect to understand what we’re doing.”

What they’re doing is trying to hold things together in New England through injuries and late season changes on both sides of the ball. The defense did an impressive job of that on Sunday, but neither the team nor the unit is good enough to rest on its laurels right now. It’s on to the final against the Bills in Foxborough with an eye on clinching a first-round playoff bye.

“I think we’re going to be happy here for a little bit with the whole team and the defense,” Patricia acknowledged. “I was pleased that the results turned out the way they did yesterday, but we’ve really got to not dwell on it too long.”

 

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