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On Football | Midweek Report

Patriots defense improved with pass rush

The Patriots defense doesn’t get enough pressure with just four rushers, outside of end Chandler Jones.

Scott Heavey/Getty Images

The Patriots defense doesn’t get enough pressure with just four rushers, outside of end Chandler Jones.

LONDON — Bill Belichick said after Sunday’s 45-7 blasting of the Rams that he didn’t sense the Patriots were more aggressive in their defensive play-calling.

He was correct. Technically.

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Against the pass, the Patriots sent additional rushers (more than the normal four) on just eight of the Rams’ 40 dropbacks. The 20 percent blitz rate is right on the Patriots’ average of 21 percent since the 2010 season.

But it’s a lot for the 2012 season. The Patriots blitzed an average of 11 percent of the time in the first seven games. Only the Seahawks game, when the Patriots sent an extra rusher on 27.3 percent of the dropbacks, exceeded the blitzes against the Rams.

But the number of true blitzes paints only part of the picture of the Patriots pressure packages against the Rams. The Patriots also used five zone exchanges and three run blitzes. They hadn’t come close to those numbers all season.

A zone exchange is when one player who usually rushes — usually a defensive lineman — drops into coverage and is replaced in the rush by a player who normally does not rush. The goal is to create the illusion of pressure without actually sacrificing a coverage player by sending him to blitz.

When Rams quarterback Sam Bradford dropped back to pass on fourth and 6 with 14:56 left in the fourth quarter, linebacker Jerod Mayo rushed Bradford while tackle Jermaine Cunningham faked a rush and dropped back into coverage. End Rob Ninkovich ended up with a sack on the play.

The zone exchange and the fire zone blitz — same concept as the exchange but with an actual extra rusher coming on a blitz — have long been staples of Belichick’s defenses but have seldom been seen the past few years. That’s likely because of the youth on the defense.

This is something the Patriots are going to have to do more of as the season goes along because they don’t get enough pressure with just four rushers, outside of end Chandler Jones.

The question is, will the Patriots continue to do this, or was this just a case of them feeling confident that a rebuilding Rams team, with a porous offensive line, wasn’t much of a threat down the field?

What we do know is that while Belichick played coy with the defensive game plan after beating the Rams, the Patriots used pressure packages (blitzes plus zone exchanges) on 32.5 percent of the dropbacks.

That’s a change, and one for the better.

Here are the positional ratings against the Rams:

Quarterbacks(rating: 4.5 out of 5)

Tom Brady was nearly flawless, but it was hard to judge just how good he was because the Rams coverage was so bad. There were blown assignments all over the place, so the degree of difficulty was very low. This was one of those games that was just tailor-made for Brady. The line gave him great protection, and the coverage was far below average. Brady can throw all day in those circumstances. The most impressive aspect of Brady’s game was how he ignored all the pressure around him. We’ve seen him shaky in those spots, but this was classic Brady standing tall in the pocket, not feeling the rush. He was touched only twice — on the 37th and 68th plays. That helps a lot, considering the book is to hit Brady early to speed him up. Ryan Mallett was average in his first stint.

Running backs (5 out of 5)

Tremendous day for all three running backs. The only potential negative play was when Stevan Ridley picked the wrong hole on the fourth play of the game — and that’s splitting hairs. New England was really fortunate that Brandon Lloyd wasn’t called for a blatant pick on linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar on Danny Woodhead’s 28-yard reception on third and 2 on the opening drive. Great juke move by Shane Vereen on safety Craig Dahl on his 14-yard run in the second quarter. Vereen is at his best in space, and the Patriots have done a nice job drawing up and executing plays that accentuate his positives. Ridley absolutely trucked Dahl on his 16-yard run in the middle of the third quarter.

Receivers (4.5 out of 5)

Rob Gronkowski was back on his game, and with a bye week coming up, that’s a great sign for the second half. Tremendous over-the-shoulder catch by Gronkowski down to the 1 before the Patriots’ second score. A tribute to his outstanding athletic ability. The Rams really thought they could use rookie tackle Michael Brockers to help cover Gronkowski on the score that put the Patriots up, 21-7? Daniel Fells, who has been inconsistent with his blocking this season, had a great one on Ridley’s 30-yard run in the third quarter against Quintin Mikell, who had leverage on Fells at one point. Great route by Lloyd against Janoris Jenkins on the touchdown to go up, 35-7. Lloyd faked the fade hard and then crossed Jenkins, who had no idea what to do. The Patriots took advantage of Jenkins’s overaggressiveness all game. He was completely overmatched. Julian Edelman may be known for his run blocking, but he let players cross his face, leading to two negative runs in the third quarter.

Offensive line (5 out of 5)

Wasn’t totally flawless, but when you consider the Rams blitzed on 51 percent of the Patriots’ 43 dropbacks, it was very impressive that New England allowed only eight quarterback pressures. That’s by far the highest percentage of blitzes at Brady since the Dolphins sent extra rushers 54.9 percent of the time in the second meeting last season. And the Dolphins could actually cover people. Three of the pressures couldn’t be assigned to an individual because they were just free blitzers. Rookie left tackle Nate Solder had his finest game as a professional with zero pressures allowed, as he shut down impressive end Robert Quinn. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (hurry) was just as terrific, mostly against standout end Chris Long. It did help that Brady (and Mallett) held the ball for more than three seconds on just 11.6 percent of the dropbacks. The quarterbacks got rid of the ball in less than 2.5 seconds — the threshold for a sack — on 50.9 percent of dropbacks, so they were unsackable half the time. Ryan Wendell, Donald Thomas, and Dan Connolly were also very good, especially in the run game.

Defensive line (4 out of 5)

This group accounted for 79.4 percent of the Patriots’ 17 quarterback pressures, thanks to Jones and Cunningham having their best rushing days of the season, which tends to happen when the other team is one-dimensional for half the game. Jones (sack, two hurries, 2.5 knockdowns) got pressure on 18.3 percent of his rushes, a season high. Cunningham (three hurries, knockdown) exceeded his season total of three pressures, and he did well to chase down a run from behind. Ninkovich (sack, 1.5 hurries, half knockdown) had a good game, and Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love were their normal solid selves. Unreal athletic ability for Wilfork to cover running back Daryl Richardson in the flat and then make the tackle for a 4-yard loss. Not many tackles can do that. But there were a few problems against the run (Cunningham, Ron Brace) and two penalties. And rookies Jake Bequette and Justin Francis did not impress in their first extended playing time of the season.

Linebackers (4 out of 5)

More good than bad out of this group, but a bit of a mixed bag. Having Dont’a Hightower (two knockdowns, half stuff) obviously makes the defensive coaches more confident in opening up the playbook a bit. But there were times when Hightower was on the passive side against the run. Brandon Spikes (hurry, half knockdown) showed improvement against the pass with two breakups. Mayo was extremely solid.

Secondary (3 out of 5)

The Rams’ touchdown was an exact copy of the Seahawks’ game-winning score. Same coverage (Cover 2), same route (fake corner then post off a play-action rollout), and same blown coverage by safety Tavon Wilson. Think they’ll drill that one a few times during the bye week? Sterling Moore also allowed a plus-20-yard pass, but it was a very good throw and catch, tough to defend. Alfonzo Dennard (interception) competed well, but he’s going to have to make progress against the run. On Steven Jackson’s 7-yard run on the second drive, Dennard didn’t react well to the run, and then couldn’t get off the block. Cornerbacks are crucial to the Patriots’ run defense, and if Dennard doesn’t improve, he could get replaced against good run teams. Nice interception by Wilson, where he read the quarterback’s eyes and broke on the ball. Devin McCourty continues to show well at safety. It’s going to be tough for the Patriots to move him.

Special teams (4.5 out of 5)

Zoltan Mesko didn’t get much action with only two punts, but they were very good. Stephen Gostkowski continued to be strong on kickoffs, and the coverage was excellent. Nate Ebner (three tackles) and Marquice Cole stood out on coverage. Edelman, who failed to field one punt, is terrific at making the first guy miss. The team is better with him back there, but he needs to get upfield a little bit more. Vereen missed a block on the first kickoff return.

PLAY OF THE GAME

Situation: The Patriots were leading, 14-7, with eight minutes left in the second quarter when they faced third and 4 at the Rams’ 41-yard line.

What happened: The Rams were bluffing a blitz with linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar (58) over center Ryan Wendell and appeared to be in man-to-man coverage. Tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) was not touched at the snap and ran up on safety Quintin Mikell (27) before breaking on a cross. Dunbar probably should have provided more help against Gronkowski, who was allowed to easily cross the face of Mikell. Brady delivered one of his strongest passes of the game, which was needed because Mikell nearly got a hand on it. The Rams needed two players to bring down Gronkowski at the 9 after a 32-yard gain. The drive ended with a touchdown to put the Patriots up, 21-7.

ON HIS GAME

Rob Gronkowski, tight end

Something in London agreed with Gronkowski, because he turned in a performance that was vintage 2011. He was much more involved in the pass game, and one has to wonder if that should continue when Aaron Hernandez returns.

OFF HIS GAME

Jake Bequette, defensive end

The rookie had his longest stint (11 snaps) and first action since the Bills game, and had a rough time. He was dominated on a run by light-blocking tight end Lance Kendricks, and had a penalty. Have to start somewhere.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.
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