Soft Pats 'D' can't follow Mayo's lead

191543.jpg

Soft Pats 'D' can't follow Mayo's lead

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

CLEVELAND -- Jerod Mayo was not happy Sunday night.

He sat in front of the locker the Browns had given him, neither changing nor packing, after New England's 34-14 loss to Cleveland. The captain seemed unready to move on.

Maybe he was trying to get his bearings.

"It was very disappointing,'' Mayo said of the loss. "We were coming in feeling pretty good about our run defense and Hillis just came out -- the offensive line came out -- and did a great job."

Mayo was talking about Peyton Hillis. The 6-foot-1, 240-pound running back had the game of his career, and it was all Cleveland needed. He dodged, hurdled and shrugged off tackles on his way to 184 yards. Hillis had as many carries (29) as the rest of the Browns rush and receiver corp had touches combined.

That's one player doing the work of 12. One guy the Patriots couldn't contain.

"He ran the ball hard today,'' Mayo said. "You really can't simulate the skill that of a bigger guy back there. But he did a great job today. Their offensive line did a good job, as well."

So you can understand Jerod Mayo's confusion. It has taken weeks -- that stretch back to 2009 -- for the Patriots to feel "pretty good" about their defense. But the strides have been made.

Third-down defense was a major concern entering Week 6's match up with Baltimore. The Patriots were holding down the NFL's cellar spot for efficiency, allowing opponents to convert 54.7 percent of the time. But the 'D' stood strong and gave the Patriots an opportunity to win by forcing the Ravens to punt on their final five possessions, three straight coming in overtime.

The next week saw another step forward. The Patriots forced four turnovers on San Diego's league-leading offense and stonewalled the run (38 yards).

And last weekend? Minnesota's 410 total yards of offense are deceptive. That three-headed monster of Brett Favre, Randy Moss, and Adrian Peterson only put 18 points on the board. Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington and safety Brandon Meriweather held Moss to just one catch.

So what happened on Sunday? Why will rookie quarterback Colt McCoy be able to tell his grandkids that his breakout game (14-for-19, 174 yards) came against the Patriots? How could Hillis set a career-high for rush yards and score two touchdowns? Was it about those trick plays that Cleveland is so notorious for?

It's a start.

One bit of sneakiness came late in the second quarter when the Browns had a 10-7 lead. Cleveland lined up in its Wildcat formation with Josh Cribbs at quarterback. But Cribbs didn't run the ball. Instead, the Browns remixed the"fumblerooski" play. It confounded New England's defense, and resulted in an 11-yard touchdown from wideout Chansi Stuckey.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had a basic answer in the postgame.

"It was a new play, they hadn't run it this year. We had prepared for plays like that, but we obviously didn't prepare very well,'' he said. "It was a good play by them, not a good play by us, that's all it is."

Belichick's cut-and-dry analysis was similar to Mayo's. Those two, as did Arrington, all pointed to a lot of preparation that proved fruitless. It seemed that no matter how much mix-and-match the Pats did, no matter how much shuffling of defensive schemes they did, they just couldn't find an answer.

"We knew they were coming up with some stuff we hadn't seen. We haven't watched the film yet,'' Mayo laughed ruefully, "but hopefully when we watch the film we'll learn where the breakdowns were and we'll have to get better at it.''

Improvement shouldn't weigh heavy on the captain's shoulders, though. Mayo led all players with seven tackles and three assists. Belichick says Mayo's impressive tally has everything to do with the linebacker taking the opportunities given to him. Mayo is doing that: He has 17 more than the league's No. 2 tackler, Tennessee's Stephen Tulloch. So it's up to the other guys to get better.

The secondary in particular will have film study to do.

Setting the edge has been an issue that keeps cropping up for the Pats. It's what
Arrington called a "lack of awareness." It bit the Patriots again on one fourth-quarter drive when Hillis got the ball six straight times. Cleveland's O-line was suffocating on the final carry. Fullback Lawrence Vickers blocked Patriots' safety James Sanders brilliantly -- as he had all day -- and gave Hillis an open sideline. Thirty-five yards. Touchdown.

To see Mayo, the only guy able to break free, chasing Hillis in futility was a pathetic capsule of the day's defensive struggle. It is why he sat before his locker on Sunday night, unable to or unsure of where to file the effort away.

Eventually, he got up and got ready to go home.

"It's disappointing but if we can learn something from this, it was worth it,'' Mayo said.

Learning is what the Patriots defense has been doing all season and overall, they've taken more steps forward than back. With just one week until a trip to take on a tough Steelers team, they'd better hope that rebound rate stays high.

Mary Paoletti can be reached at mpaoletti@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti.

What if Belichick had coached the Ravens? 'I think we would've been competitive'

away_patriots_belichick_browns.jpg

What if Belichick had coached the Ravens? 'I think we would've been competitive'

FOXBORO -- Ever wonder what might've been if Bill Belichick had remained the coach of the Browns, and later the Ravens, after they moved from Cleveland? He says he doesn't.

"I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it, no," Belichick told Baltimore reporters during a conference call on Wednesday. "I try to think ahead and make the best of the situation that I’m in, which is what I tried to do when I was in Cleveland. I took a team that wasn’t very good in 1991, prior to free agency and all of that, had a real good team in 1994. The team moved in 1995."

The decision to move the team helped undo the Browns season in 1995, and Belichick was later fired. There's little denying, though, that he left the pieces of a competitive roster behind. And he helped stock the Ravens' cupboard with valuable assets.

Five years after Belichick's tenure in Cleveland had expired, the franchise won a Super Bowl with linebacker Ray Lewis -- drafted with a pick Belichick had acquired -- as its foundational piece. 

"We made a trade that provided two first-round picks that Ozzie [Newsome] did a great job with," Belichick continued. "Ozzie and Ray Lewis were two of the cornerstones of that eventual championship team.

"I have a lot of confidence in my ability, I had a lot of confidence in the coaching staff and the players that we had at that time – 1995 wasn’t obviously a great year for us. I don’t think we need to talk about that. We all know what happened. But yeah, I think we would have been competitive if I had been the head coach there. I think we would have been competitive. We had a good team, we had a good staff, and we had a lot of good players.

"Ozzie did a good job with that team and made it better, and they won a championship five years later [with] some of the same players that we started with. But you know, it wasn’t my choice, Ted [Marchibroda] came in there and was going to transition that for what they needed at that point in time. But I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it, no."

Bennett not practicing, Foster spends some time with receivers

patriots_dj_foster_082516.jpg

Bennett not practicing, Foster spends some time with receivers

FOXBORO -- Martellus Bennett could use a rest, and the Patriots had him sit out for the start of Wednesday's practice.

The 6-foot-7 tight end is dealing with ankle and shoulder issues that have limited him in practice in recent weeks, and he missed an appearance at a preschool on Tuesday with what a representative called an illness. During Sunday's game against the Rams, Bennett's physical ailments clearly limited him as he had difficulty both as a blocker and as a receiver. 

The Patriots also went without safety Jordan Richards, receiver Danny Amendola and special teams captain Matthew Slater at the start of practice. Richards suffered a knee injury against the Jets in Week 12 and missed practice time last week. Amendola endured an ankle injury against the Rams and left the game iin the third quarter. Slater is dealing with a foot injury that has kept him out of the last two games. 

Patriots corner Eric Rowe was present for the start of Wednesday's practice, but he was not spotted with other corners after a couple of drills. Rowe injured his hamstring late in the third quarter against the Rams and did not return. 

Patriots running back DJ Foster was spotted with receivers near the end of the team's media-availability period Wednesday after working out with running backs to start the session. Foster played receiver for a year in college after beginning his collegiate career as a running back. If the Patriots want depth at wideout with Amendola injured, Foster could be an option.