Sunday, October 4, 2009

Patriots' 'D'-line suddenly looks deep

A funny thing happened to the Patriots' defensive line this week.

It got deep.

The Patriots began Sunday's game in a relatively routine 4-3 defense with Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Mike Wright and Jarvis Green on the line of scrimmage. The Ravens, however, reeled off a 15-play drive that ate up more than six and a half minutes -- and other than third-down or long-yardage situations in which the Patriots went to the dime defense, those four defensive linemen did not come off the field. (Wright and Green even stayed on the field for at least one of the third-down snaps, too.)

It was exactly the type of drive that can wear down a defensive line before the game even is 15 minutes old.

But the next time the Ravens took the field, Green was off the field and rookie Myron Pryor had taken his place -- playing defensive tackle with Wright shifting to defensive end. The drive after that, new acquisition Terdell Sands made his New England debut with Wright and Wilfork watching a few plays from the sidelines.

"That's an advantage for us, to rotate as many guys as we do," Wright said. "That just shows how much confidence the coaches have in the players, and it also shows how versatile we are."

The reason the Patriots signed Sands in the first place was a concern with depth on the defensive line. Richard Seymour, of course, was traded to the Oakland Raiders shortly before the season began, and Wilfork suffered an ankle injury a week ago and didn't practice until Friday.

But the Patriots found themselves with so much depth on Sunday they didn't even dress second-round pick Ron Brace. Green, Pryor, Sands, Wilfork and Wright all saw time at defensive tackle, and Green, Warren and Wright -- as well as third-down pass-rushers Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess -- all saw time at defensive end.

"Every week, it seems like everybody is coming together a little bit more," Wright said. "There's better communication out there -- especially with just getting comfortable with guys out there, knowing what other guys are doing, playing off their pass rush."

That's in part why, even though the Ravens had run more than 50 offensive plays to that point, the Patriots' trench defenders were fresh enough to make a third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 stop in the middle of the field with five minutes to go in the game.

"It's just doing your job and playing your technique," Wright said. "Vince did a great job on that fourth-and-1, and Tiny" -- the team's nickname for Warren -- "on the third-and-1 bullied his guy and made a play. It was huge for the defense."

Said Bill Belichick, "It looked like (the Ravens) opened the formation up, got some penetration inside. There’s a wall of bodies in there, so it’s hard to tell from the sideline, but they didn’t get much movement on the line of scrimmage."

The Patriots even had enough energy to chase Flacco all over the field, sacking the Ravens' second-year quarterback twice and hurrying him 10 times.

"Whenever the 'D'-line can make the quarterback throw the ball quick, you know it's some great pressure," safety Brandon McGowan said.

A key to that depth was the emergence of Sands, who signed with the Patriots on Monday but had enough of a handle on the playbook to make a contribution right away.

"He's a presence," Wright said. "He's huge up the middle, and he draws a lot of blocks. He's tall and can get his hands up and move guys around. It's huge for us to have a guy like that to step in and do work."

It wasn't perfect: One one third-and-2 snap late in the second quarter, linebacker Adalius Thomas grabbed Sands by the hips and shoved him to his left to make sure he was lined up in the right gap. But it was more than acceptable for his first career game.

"I don't know what they're doing with him, but I'm sure they're probably keeping it simple," Wright said. "Five days is not that much to get what we've been putting in since minicamps, so I'm sure they're putting a little in every day."

(Note: Of the Patriots' defensive linemen, only Wright was in the locker room after the door was opened to reporters.)

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