January 1, 2013

From shaky to solid on defense

New England's once-weak unit solidified as the season progressed, and is ready for the playoffs.

The Associated Press

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - A New England Patriots defense that gave up so many big plays finally is making them.

PATRIOTS' PLAYOFF OPENER

WHO: Ravens, Colts or Texans at Patriots

WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 13, 4:30 p.m.

TELEVISION: CBS

Just in time.

The Patriots began the regular season with an influx of rookies they hoped could improve one of the worst teams at allowing yards last season. They ended it with their first shutout in three years and a boost of confidence heading into the playoffs.

"We've improved each week," defensive back Devin McCourty said, "but I think the most important thing is this time right now, how much better can we get going into these last games.

"We can't afford to come out and have one bad game."

New England's defense had one of its best games Sunday in a 28-0 victory against the Miami Dolphins that brought an opening-round bye. The Patriots (12-4) had a season-high seven sacks, gave up just 106 yards in the first half while taking a 21-0 lead and let the Dolphins cross midfield on 2 of 11 possessions.

Pretty good for a team that gave up 38 plays of more than 20 yards in the first half of the season. That number dropped to 28 in the second half.

The improvement on third downs also has been impressive. Opponents converted at a rate of 50 percent or higher in six of the first 10 games. But no team was better than 38 percent in the last six.

Credit that to youngsters gaining experience, veterans settling into roles, and communication and cooperation growing.

First-round picks Chandler Jones at defensive end and Dont'a Hightower at linebacker started 13 games. On Sunday, Hightower recovered a fumble at the Patriots' 1, preserving the shutout.

Second-rounder Tavon Wilson at safety and seventh-rounder Alfonzo Dennard have become productive players. Even Justin Francis, a rookie free agent, made an impact at defensive end with the first three sacks of his career Sunday.

He had plenty of help.

"You can single out anybody with stat numbers," defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said Monday, "but if you take a look at the group effort, it was really what we were looking for.

"You can certainly see situations where the guys in coverage in those situations did a really excellent job to allow the pass rush time to get to the quarterback, and then you can see situations where the pass rush was able to get to the quarterback, which allowed the cover guys to not have to cover as long. So I really think it was a good, collaborative effort."

Last season, only the Green Bay Packers allowed more yards than the Patriots. The fact that 17 teams gave up more points didn't mask the weaknesses.

So Coach Bill Belichick took defensive players with the first six of his seven draft picks.

He also added veterans before the season -- safety Steve Gregory and defensive end Trevor Scott -- and traded for cornerback Aqib Talib after the ninth game, which allowed McCourty to move to safety, where he solidified the secondary.

It also made a defense with solid backups even better.

Scott stepped in when Jones was sidelined for two games and Jermaine Cunningham was suspended for four after violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances.

"We have a lot of depth here on defense," Scott said. "If someone goes down we have the next guy that's going to step in and fill his role. So it's definitely huge to have the depth that we have. No matter what happens we just need to keep moving forward."

They may have to do that without defensive end Rob Ninkovich. The team leader with eight sacks left Sunday's game with a hip injury and didn't return. There was no update Monday on his condition.

(Continued on page 2)

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