By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com Staff Reporter Follow @mary_paoletti
FOXBORO -- New England's defense had a lot to do with the team's 35-21 win Sunday evening.
But all the positive plays -- the second-quarter goal line stand, two interceptions, two sacks and two fumble recoveries -- must be digested along with a bitter pill: The secondary is not solid.
Last Monday in Miami, Chad Henne (30-for-49, 416 yards) connected with Brandon Marshall seven times for 139 yards. This weekend, Chargers wideout Vincent Jackson caught 10 balls for a career-high 172 yards. Though both are tough targets -- Marshall is 6-foot-4 and Jackson 6-5 -- the trend of letting passing yards slip shouldn't sit well with Leigh Bodden, Devin McCourty and the rest of the cornerbacks corps.
Bodden was visibly frustrated after the game.
"It's a challenge just like every week," he said, staring straight into his locker. "But those guys are tall and Rivers threw it pretty high a few times and they just came up with the ball. They just made plays. We're right there, but they just ended up making the play."
That description sums up McCourty's night.
As a rookie he thrived on being disruptive; his seven interceptions in 2010 marked the second best total in the league. But this year McCourty's having a hard time finding the ball in the air.
On San Diego's second touchdown of the fourth quarter McCourty was initially in position, but Jackson shucked him off for a 26-yard completion and six points. Rivers did have plenty of time on the throw as the Patriots pass rush appeared to be napping. Consequently, Jackson had a few extra beats to shake McCourty.
Bodden says there's no excuse for a missed assignment.
"The defensive line doesn't affect our coverage. We have a man, we have a zone; we have to cover that zone as long as we have to. Or if we're playing man, we have to play man as long as we have to. The pressure has nothing to do with us. We have our job to do and we have to do it."
Ah. Execution: The hard part.
Kyle Arrington, who's starting over Bodden as the third cornerback, had trouble matching up with Jackson in the slot. One point on film to watch, rewind, and watch again is that San Diego third down catch-and-run in the second quarter. Arrington got blown up by Jackson: 28 yards, first down.
You might not remember it. Five plays later, Arrington's flub and the drive were swallowed up by the Patriots' crowd-pleasing goal-line stand.
McCourty was in the fray, bounced up in that moment of his overall see-saw evening. He got aggressive on the goal line, working upfield to force 243-pound San Diego running back Mike Tolbert off his path. Jerod Mayo was there to stuff Tolbert's run.
"I'm just trying to help everybody else out," McCourty said. "On that goal line I'm probably the littlest guy in there. Whenever it's a run play I just try to read my keys and see if I can just make a play."
"Sometimes I think I went and I did a pretty good job of covering. And then there's plays when I just got beat. Right now I'm just trying to be competitive and get consistent. I feel like I played a little better this week and I'm just going to keep getting better week after week so this team can really depend on me down the stretch."
The Patriots need him. They need McCourty on par with those 2010 numbers: 82 tackles, two forced fumbles, 17 passes defensed. And they need Bodden, too. His playing time -- or lack thereof -- reflects his battling thumb and back injuries, but will likely rise out of necessity.
Rookie corner Ras-I Dowling left the game in the first half with a thigh injury. And Arrington took a big blow to the head late in the fourth quarter, so while there's time in the season to improve, that clock is ticking at an accelerated pace.
That means no more missed coverage. No giving up 41 first downs on the pass. And, for Bodden, no more penalties. Twice he was whistled for a hold away from incompletions on other side of the field.
Fine. He says he's ready.
"I'm 100 percent. I feel like the thumb is still hurting a little bit, but that's casted up game to game. Body feels good. I'm contributing wherever I need to contribute."
Buffalo would be a great place to start.
Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is up next for the Patriots and he's throwing the ball well. Fitzpatrick passed for 208 yards and four touchdowns in Kansas City, and 264 and three TD's against Oakland. His favorite target? David Nelson, a 6-5 wideout.
It's going to be a busy week in Foxboro.
"That's key when you play defense," McCourty said, "your job is not to let them score. Of course, as defense, we want to be more consistent, but no matter what we do we've got to continue making those game-changing plays and that's our goal . . . make them kick field goals, make them line it up and see what we can do, going after the field goal there.
"We've got to keep them out of the end zone. That's something we talk about and we'll keep talking about that and get it done."
Another night, on another field, without a heroic defensive line effort to lean on, the secondary will be the difference in the game. Hopefully for the Patriots, it will be for the win.