Patriots' defense making the most of spare parts By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
A year ago, Sterling Moore was taking in the Super Bowl as a spectator, perched way up in the rafters of spacious Cowboys Stadium as a college senior at nearby Southern Methodist University.
The rookie cornerback will have a far better view of this year's game, and a well-deserved upgrade to boot after coming up with perhaps the most important play of the New England Patriots' nail-biting win in the AFC Championship.
Though Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff's stunning miss of a short field goal attempt in the closing seconds may forever stand as the signature moment of the Ravens' 23-20 loss to the Patriots, Moore's heads-up negation of a would-be touchdown pass shortly prior to Cundiff's shank was equally vital to New England earning a trip to Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI. The previously- unknown 21-year-old smartly jarred the ball out of the arms of Baltimore receiver Lee Evans in the end zone with 22 seconds left, preserving the Pats' tenuous three-point advantage and gaining a surge of instant notoriety in the process.
Moore, just one moth removed from toiling on New England's practice squad, also broke up a pass on the ensuing play that would have given the Ravens a first down and forced Cundiff to be sent out for his now-famous blunder.
"When you think about it, that play is our season," said Patriots safety James Ihedigbo. "That's everything we worked for right there and [Moore] knocks that ball out of the Lee Evans' hands and comes back again and makes another play on third down. He played amazing, can't say enough about that guy."
While a defense universally regarded as the soft underbelly of the offensively- abundant AFC champions rising to the rescue in such a critical spot seems tinged in irony, having an unproven commodity like Moore emerge as a hero fits in perfectly with a unit that's gotten by with no-names and misfits all throughout the Patriots' successful 2011 run.
Fellow cornerback Kyle Arrington, himself an undrafted free agent who was cut by both Philadelphia and Tampa Bay before finding a home among New England's rag-tag bunch in 2009, tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions this season. Outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich, a two-year starter and one of the defense's smartest and most versatile members, was also released by two other organizations. A front line that kept Ravens All-Pro running back Ray Rice squarely under wraps in the AFC title game contains a seventh-round draft pick (Brandon Deaderick) and a college free agent (Kyle Love).
Ever-resourceful head coach Bill Belichick has utilized avenues even more unusual in a season-long effort to find the correct combination. Reserve receiver and primary punt returner Julian Edelman saw over 25 snaps as a nickel back against Baltimore after Arrington exited with an eye problem. Matthew Slater, also a wide receiver by trade, started three times at safety earlier in the year when a wave of injuries ravaged the secondary's back end.
While that ability to plug holes with scrap-heap talent speaks to the savvy and evaluation skills of Belichick and player personnel director Nick Caserio, New England's reliance on castoffs and obscure players hasn't exactly been by design. Season-ending injuries to regulars such as veteran end Andre Carter, promising rookie corner Ras-I Dowling and safety Josh Barrett have greatly tested the defense's depth, and despite the Patriots' reputation for superb drafts, the team has had a considerable amount of misses on the defensive side in recent years.
New England selected seven defensive players in the first three rounds of the two drafts that followed the franchise's last Super Bowl appearance, the memorable 17-14 loss to the New York Giants in Arizona during the 2007 season. The Pats did hit a home run with linebacker Jerod Mayo, a 2008 first-round choice and one of the group's linchpins, and safety Patrick Chung has developed into a reliable contributor since being tabbed in the second round the subsequent year. However, cornerbacks Terrence Wheatley (2nd Round, 2008) and Darius Butler (2nd Round, 2009), linebackers Shawn Crable (3rd Round, 2008) and Tyrone McKenzie (3rd Round, 2009) and lineman Ron Brace (2nd Round, 2009) never panned out, and Brace is the only one of those five that currently remains with the organization.
With all the shuffling and uncertainty, it's not surprising that the patchwork defense struggled for a large portion of 2011, with the Patriots surrendering club worsts for total yards (6,577) and passing yards (4,703) allowed in a season and finishing next-to-last in the NFL in both categories. Opponents eclipsed the 400-yard barrier in nine of New England's 16 regular-season contests.
The performance has been markedly better down the stretch, however, and particularly so during the playoffs. The Patriots yielded a season-low 252 total yards in their 45-10 shellacking of unexpected AFC West winner Denver in the Divisional Round, and the defense continually stood tall at important times in the hard-fought victory over Baltimore, holding the Ravens to only one touchdown in four red-zone visits on the afternoon.
"We've had a lot of things that haven't been perfect out there, but we have everybody that will stand in there and fight and give it their best all the way through, and that's a good place to be and that's what I like about this team," Belichick remarked after the AFC Championship. "They're tough, they're competitive and they really don't lose their confidence or get down on themselves. They just go out there and keep competing and see what happens."
Another example of that resiliency, not to mention Belichick's knack for maximizing the available talent, came after Carter -- an esteemed leader who had racked up 10 sacks through the first 14 games -- tore his quadriceps in a mid-December triumph at Denver. Presumed to be a devastating blow to the pass rush, the Patriots have instead generated an impressive 15 sacks in the four games since he went down.
"This team is [a bunch of] warriors," said longtime tackle Vince Wilfork, who's amassed 3 1/2 sacks over that time frame. "They're a bunch of fighters, coaches and everybody. This whole organization is just a special group of guys and I love playing for guys like this."
Below is a capsule look at the defense of the New England Patriots, with regular season statistics in parentheses:
Defensive Line: After employing a four-man front for most of the season, in large part to play to the strengths of Carter and underachieving and since- released tackle Albert Haynesworth, Belichick switched back to the 3-4 alignment the Patriots have traditionally used under his tutelage shortly before the team's playoff march. Wilfork (52 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 INT), the lone defender on the active roster who was present for the Super Bowl XLII setback to the Giants, has flourished with the scheme change and put forth a monster outing in the AFC Championship, in which the four-time Pro Bowl honoree made six tackles, one sack and three stops for losses. Love (33 tackles, 3 sacks) and Deaderick (17 tackles, 2 sacks) are both sound run-stoppers that work in a rotation with veterans Gerard Warren (12 tackles, 1 sack) and Shaun Ellis (14 tackles, 1 sack), who'll be playing in his first Super Bowl in a 12- year career spend predominantly with the rival New York Jets.
Inside Linebackers: The presence of Mayo (95 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT), one of the league's more active and instinctive linebackers, and second-year thumper Brandon Spikes (47 tackles) makes this area probably New England's greatest strength on defense. Spikes missed eight games with a knee injury before returning to action for the regular-season finale, and it's not a coincidence that the Pats were tougher against the run after he came back. The 24-year-old also had a big day in the conference title game, registering a team-best nine tackles and coming up with a key fourth-quarter interception.
Outside Linebackers: While Carter turned out to be New England's best offseason acquisition, the addition of ex-Texan Mark Anderson (29 tackles, 10 sacks) was a very astute pickup as well. The pass-rushing specialist came through with 10 sacks during the regular season and one more in the playoffs, while his ability to create pressure from both a standup linebacker or a down end allows Belichick to give the opposition a variance of looks. The same can be said about Ninkovich (74 tackles, 2 INT), who established a career high with 6 1/2 sacks in addition to holding up very well in run support.
Cornerbacks: Though the Patriots permitted 293.9 passing yards per game prior to the playoffs, that concerning total was offset by the 23 interceptions the team produced, tied for second-most in the NFL. Nearly one-third of those picks came from Arrington (88 tackles, 7 INT, 13 PD), who emerged as New England's steadiest cornerback in his second year as a starter, while counterpart Devin McCourty (87 tackles, 2 INT, 12 PD) garnered seven interceptions of his own during a stellar rookie campaign in 2010 before having his play drop off in a sophomore slump. Finding a capable nickel back after Dowling's year-ending hip injury in September had been a season-long chore, but the play of Moore (7 tackles, 2 INT) since being inserted into that role may have finally resolved that issue.
Safeties: Here's another position group that's been a mess for New England for much of this season but has shown signs of progress as of late. One reason for that improvement has been the return of the hard-hitting Chung (62 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) from a sprained foot that kept him out much of the second half, with a desperate Belichick forced to audition several candidates without much success in the wake of the injury. Ihedigbo (69 tackles), signed away from the Jets back in August, is a strong tackler but isn't considered an asset in coverage, with McCourty recently having seen time on the back end on obvious passing downs to help bolster the overall pass defense.