FOXBORO, Mass. — Earlier in the week, Patriots captain Jerod Mayo said he enjoyed it when others referred to New England as having a "no-name defense." And with back-to-back games on national television, there were undoubtedly plenty of football fans who needed to employ Google to figure out who was starting at safety and linebacker.
Yet, without three key starters — cornerback Devin McCourty, safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes — the Patriots executed their game plan in Monday's 34-3 thumping of the Chiefs.
Now, what can be learned when the Patriots treat former UFL also-ran quarterback Tyler Palko like a play toy in his first career start? That's the ultimate question.
The Patriots employed a very vanilla game plan for two reasons. First, they gave Palko an opportunity to beat their soft zone coverages for short gains throughout the night, and that Kansas City offense simply couldn't sustain any long drives without committing a crucial mistake, whether it was one of Palko's three interceptions or eight failed third-down attempts.
But the Patriots were also severely undermanned. Wide receiver Julian Edelman played in sub packages as a cornerback. Sterling Moore, a cornerback by trade, made his second career start at safety. Cornerback Antwaun Molden and linebacker Gary Guyton, who were both benched in Pittsburgh, started in place of McCourty and Spikes. And safety Ross Ventrone, who was formally promoted to the active roster about three hours prior to Monday's kickoff, played a number of reps when starter James Ihedigbo left with a shoulder injury.
So, with this plug-and-play defense, the Patriots couldn't exactly turn it loose with a complex game plan. Instead, it was much of the same stuff that hadn't worked earlier in the season, but it was just fine for Palko.
While recognizing that the Patriots might have lined up opposite of the worst starting quarterback in the NFL, they were also playing with a number of their own guys who had very limited experience.
"It's a testament to guys stepping up," Ihedigbo said. "It's great when you have the depth where key guys can go down and then you can have a performance like this on defense, especially in the secondary. Hats off to Kyle Arrington for having the performance he did. Phillip Adams played outstanding all game and ended up with a key interception down there in the red zone. And Molden played great, too."
Arrington had two interceptions to increase his league-leading total to seven, and it was an important performance for him without McCourty. Plus, he needed to play well because a left-handed quarterback would always feel more comfortable throwing to the right side of the defense, where Arrington plays.
On the whole, the Patriots' good defensive players stepped up, starting with Arrington. Defensive ends Andre Carter (seven tackles, one half sack, two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and one pass defense) and Mark Anderson (1 1/2 sacks) continued to pressure the offensive backfield, while Mayo and Ihedigbo orchestrated the defensive calls to keep the new faces in place.
"It really speaks volumes of how everyone on this team really just takes their role, whatever role it is, and they take it and do the best they can at it," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who had a sack and a pressure that led to an interception. "I think that's a great thing about our team."
The Patriots' remaining schedule is a cakewalk, as their last six opponents have a combined record of 20-40. And they'll play six more quarterbacks who, on the whole, will more closely resemble Palko than Packers front man Aaron Rodgers.
Whether or not that's good for their defensive development is up for debate, but when the Patriots get healthier, they'll have more opportunities to grow.
"We're not satisfied, but we like the direction that we are going," Arrington said. "If we just keep preparing, stay focused, and come out and play for each other and play hard like that for 60 minutes, I think we will be in pretty good shape down the road."
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