LONDON — When Sam Bradford dropped back to pass at midfield on the Rams’ opening possession and connected with Chris Givens for a 50-yard touchdown, doubt had to creep in on the Patriots.
It was the same play the Seahawks used to defeat the Patriots: double move by the receiver against Tavon Wilson in a Cover-2 (two deep safeties) zone.
“Here we go again.”
But instead of folding, the Patriots responded with their best defensive effort of the season, shutting out the Rams the rest of the way in their 45-7 victory Sunday at Wembley Stadium.
“I thought we did a good job today of putting that play past us, then playing great defense after that,” said Devin McCourty, who was at safety for the second straight game. “I think that’s what we have to focus on. Sometime they are going to make some plays. We’ve just got to keep playing, make our own plays.”
Bradford was 3 of 3 for 69 yards and a touchdown, for a perfect passer rating of 158.3 on the first drive.
He was 19 of 27 for 136 yards and an interception (66.9 passer rating) the rest of the way, before being relieved by Kellen Clemens.
Wilson rebounded personally after the touchdown.
“He made a play,” Wilson said. “No excuses about it. I was there, just have to stay on top of him and make a play next time. That’s why it’s a 60-minute game, you have to keep playing and fight through it, and that’s what I did.”
The big reason the Patriots were better on defense after the touchdown was because they pressured Bradford more. Whether it was a zone exchange — replacing a lineman with a linebacker or safety to keep the number of rushers at four (that’s how Vince Wilfork wound up in coverage against a running back in the flat) — or sending a fifth or sometimes sixth rusher, the Patriots got after the quarterback more than they have this season.
Even though coach Bill Belichick wouldn’t admit to sending more pressure at Bradford, he later acknowledged the lack of a consistent pass rush was a problem early in the game.
“You want to defend some of those passes a little tighter than we did, and rush a little bit better, so it’s a combination of that, too,” Belichick said. “I’d say our pass rush wasn’t as good as what I hoped it would be. And our coverage, therefore, always is going to be put in a little more stress when we don’t rush quite as well. And then we had times when we did rush a little. But we just have to do it more consistently.”
Belichick might as well have been talking about the first half of the season as a whole. But in this game the Patriots did make progress harassing the quarterback.
The players said the edgier calls gave the defense more of an aggressive slant that sometimes they lack when they’re reacting to the offense. The Patriots were dictating the action against Bradford.
When a defense calls blitzes, sacks are not always the goal. Making a quarterback throw quickly and short can also be an advantage. Bradford may have completed 73.3 percent of his passes, but his 6.8 yards per attempt was average.
“When those guys up front are getting a lot of pressure, that makes our job a lot easier,” Wilson said.
For the Patriots’ defense, it seemed like everyone contributed.
End Chandler Jones, who later had a 17-yard sack, ended the Rams’ second possession with a knockdown that led to an intentional grounding penalty. Rob Ninkovich had a sack. Brandon Spikes and cornerback Marquice Cole, on for the injured Kyle Arrington, each had two of the Patriots’ nine passes defensed. Wilfork tackled running back Daryl Richardson for a 4-yard loss. Wilson and fellow rookie Alfonzo Dennard each had an interception. Jerod Mayo had a tackle for loss and a few other key stops. And Dont’a Hightower, regaining health after dealing with a hamstring pull, was harassing Bradford in the backfield and providing tight coverage, as well.
“It’s great to have Dont’a back,” Ninkovich said. “It helps out being able to kind of go in and out of some different defenses. We were able to go out there and get the quarterback off the spot.”
The key for the Patriots will be to prove this wasn’t an aberration against a rebuilding team, but that can wait until after the bye week.
“Every week we prepare to put our best game out on the field,” Ninkovich said. “This is the NFL. You’re going to have some plays made against you. It’s just you have to go make more plays on defense and get our offense on the field.”Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.