Curran: Patriots defense takes baby steps

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Curran: Patriots defense takes baby steps

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots InsiderFollow @tomecurran
OAKLAND - Better. Still not good. But better. The New England Patriots are a quarter of the way through the 2011 regular season. Defensively, the numbers are ugly. A total of 1,910 yards allowed (478 per game), allowing conversions on third down 48 percent of the time, six sacks (four in the first game of the year) . . . you've seen it, I've seen it. They are not that good on defense. But they were better on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders and - at this point of the season - getting better is what teams hope for. The loss of Jerod Mayo is going to hurt. He and Vince Wilfork are the two best front-seven players the Patriots have. And with the secondary struggling and banged up, his absence as the leader of the back part of the defense is a blow to their trying to make improvements. But the Patriots' early season problems have been as much about scheme as they've been about personnel. And on Sunday, the Patriots got back to playing a style that best fits their guys. For three weeks, the Patriots asked theircorners to play a ton of man-to-man. They asked them to get up on receivers, jam them and allow the pass rush to force the ball out quickly. Trouble was, too often the corners weren't rerouting receivers and the pass rush never got there. And the results were staggering. On Sunday, New England played a little softer. And while Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell still rolled up some yards, the avalanche of deep passes to outside receivers who'd beaten either Leigh Bodden or Devin McCourty ended. And the Patriots tackled on Sunday. There were still some misses - Shaun Ellis' Dawn of the Dead lumber after Jacoby Ford applies here - but ususally the grabbing and calf-roping we'd seen in the first three weeks was replaced by wrap-em-up, bring-em-down sticks. "We got better this week," said McCourty. "The goal is to win and we did that but throughout the week in practice we got better."The Raiders brought a very clear-cut challenge to this game. The NFL's leading rusher coming in was Darren McFadden. Throughout his coaching career, Bill Belichick has been someone that stresses taking away the one thing an opposing offense really, really likes to do. On Sunday, the Patriots held McFadden to 75 yards on 14 carries. And 41 of them came on one play. The Patriots otherwise held McFadden to fewer than 3 yards per carry. Sure tackling was a big part of that. "We took that as a challenge to come out here and help those guys up front," said McCourty who, along with Kyle Arrington (starting in place of Bodden) led the Patriots with eight tackles. "Our front seven does a great job against the run but if a guy comes outside or gets in the open field we got to do a good job coming up and making tackles."The Patriots were disgraceful in that department the past few weeks, especially in the linebacker and secondary group. There are still some alarming trends - how did Gary Guyton get so slow so fast? - but at least their seems to be a settling in process underway. And while Belichick mayregard points allowed as the end-all, be-all, yardsallowed is an indicator of something.If you're 32nd in the league in yards allowed, it's impossible to hide from the fact you can't stop a nosebleed (to borrow a phrase). Thefact Oakland gained 504 net yards is still alarming. And the fact that one of their drives ended in anunforced end-zone interception thrown by Jason Campbell from the Patriots' 6 isn't evidence that the Patriots bent but didn't break. It's just evidence that Campbell is a mid to low-tier NFL quarterback. But after allowing 268 first-half yards, the Patriots allowed just 133 total yards in the second half before the Raiders had a 99-yard jaunt in garbage time. Again, improvement. "As a player you want to get that down," said McCourty. "We come out and work hard every day to come out and play well and that's one way of seeing how well we play. We always want to get the yards down."McCourty's been under siege a bit. I asked him if it was getting tiresome answering questions about what went wrong every week. "I've explained and talked about it," he said. "When we watch those plays, we want to correct them. We want to get those yards down, we want to get those numbers down. We feel like we're a good defense and when we come out there and let things happen, like Mayo said, 'That's what we are,' that's what the stats shows. We want to get that down and keep playing well."The Patriots have personnel issues stacking up silently against them. They've lost two of their best young interior pass rushers, Myron Pryor (IR) and Mike Wright (concussion). Albert Haynesworth has missed two games with back problems. Now Mayo is hurt and the secondary still has two starting safeties - Josh Barrett and Patrick Chung - running around with casts on their hands. They face the Jets and Cowboys over the next two weeks and both of them have better offensive personnel than Oakland. The challenge is very clear. Whether they're going to be able to meet it is up in the air. But the indications are better on this Monday than they were last Monday. Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

Brady allows himself to enjoy win: '[Bleep], you've got to be happy now'

Brady allows himself to enjoy win: '[Bleep], you've got to be happy now'

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady can be his own worst critic. That's why last week, after beating the Texans in the Divisional Round to move on to the AFC title game, he wasn't thrilled. He didn't play up to his standards. The offense struggled at points. He wore his frustration like a five o'clock shadow.

Winning is not everything for Brady, most weeks. He has an idea of how he should perform, how the Patriots offense should perform, and when those ideals aren't met, he's generally displeased. 

PATRIOTS 36, STEELERS 17

On Sunday, after beating up on the Steelers, 36-17, that wasn't the case. It was a sound performance, but it wasn't perfect. It was explosive at times, but it shined a light on areas where the Patriots will need to continue to improve. 

Despite its imperfections, Sunday was no time to brood about plays missed or lessons learned the hard way. Screw it, Brady seemed to say. They were going to the Super Bowl. It was OK to smile.  

"It was a good day," Brady said. "I mean, we're going to the Super Bowl, man. [Expletive], you've got to be happy now."

The Super Bowl berth is the ninth in franchise history -- more than any other club -- and the seventh with Brady and coach Bill Belichick. By throwing for 384 yards and three touchdowns on 32-of-42 passing, Brady tied Joe Montana for the most postseason games (nine) with three touchdown passes. 

Brady will also claim the record for Super Bowls played when he and the Patriots head to Houston. And if they win, he'll tie Charles Haley for most Super Bowl wins for a player (five).

Those are lofty numbers made even more significant, perhaps, due to the fact that Brady wasn't allowed to start this season as his team's quarterback. He was asked during Sunday's postgame press conference if it was personally satisfying to get back to the Super Bowl despite having to serve a four-game suspension due to Deflategate.

"Well, that's because of the hard work of a lot of people from my coaches to my teammates to our families that support us," he said. "It takes a lot of people, a lot of hard work and a lot of effort over the course of many months. This didn't start at 6:40 tonight.

"This thing started in April. It really started before that in free-agency when we were picking up guys like [Chris] Hogan and drafting guys like Malcolm Mitchell and guy who were in rehab like [LeGarrette Blount] and [Dion Lewis] and [James Develin] and Nate [Solder]. It's a lot of hard work. There are only two teams left standing, and I'm happy we're one of them."

They're going to the Super Bowl. He has to be happy now.