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New England Patriots Used the Blitz to Limit the Big Plays vs. St. Louis Rams

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New England Patriots Used the Blitz to Limit the Big Plays vs. St. Louis Rams
Scott Heavey/Getty Images
Patriots defenders were all over the Rams on Sunday.

The St. Louis Rams are no longer known as the "Greatest Show on Turf," but the New England Patriots have made worse offenses appear akin to that record-setting group this season.

That trend stopped in the United Kingdom. The Patriots still lead the league by a wide margin with 42 pass plays allowed of 20 or more yards, but they were able to hold the Rams to only three such pass plays on Sunday, far below their previous average of 6.5 per game.

One of those was a 50-yard touchdown strike on the opening drive.

Rams receiver Chris Givens ran almost the same route as the one we saw Seahawks wide receiver Sidney Rice run to get past Tavon Wilson. 

Here's the route run by Givens.

And the route run by Rice.

But the similarities go beyond just that.

Once again, there was no pressure in the quarterback's face, and once again, the safety bit on the double move, making this an easy touchdown in both scenarios.

Here's the pre-break snapshot of Givens.

Here's the pre-break snapshot of Rice.

Let's not gloss over the fact that Wilson made the same mistake on the same route, albeit in a different scenario entirely. Perhaps that worked to the Patriots' benefit, though, because they were able to act on it, respond to it and learn something from it in-game.

It was almost as if that play acted as the catalyst for a change that has been years in the making. The Patriots have stuck by the bend-don't-break philosophy in the face of defensive strife year after year.

They put the blitz to work early and often against the Rams, generating pressure in creative ways to keep Bradford and the passing game off balance.

Take this blitz on 3rd-and-5. The Patriots have struggled to get interior pressure recently, but Belichick sent linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes on a blitz through the A-gap. 

They ran another linebacker blitz in the second quarter on 1st-and-20, this time with rookie Dont'a Hightower coming off the edge.

He was praised for his blitzing capabilities coming out of Alabama, and he got the pressure quickly on Bradford, forcing him to check the ball down to his running back.

Hightower comes unblocked, and running back Daryl Richardson does all he can to try to prevent him from completely blowing up the play. After whiffing on the block, he gets into the flat and makes the catch, but there's no opportunity for him to get yards with linebacker Jerod Mayo right in his face.

Overall, there was a lot more pressure in Bradford's face on Sunday than the Patriots have been putting on opposing quarterbacks this season.

Season averages via ProFootballFocus.com

According to ProFootballFocus.com, prior to Sunday's game, New England had pressured quarterbacks an average of 10.4 times per game on an average of 39 drop-backs per game. They had blitzed on six drop-backs per game.

This week? Numbers up across the board.

This may not mean the Patriots will blitz more heavily in the coming weeks; perhaps this was just a wrinkle for one opponent we'll never see again—unless the right opportunities present themselves.

What it does mean, though, is that the Patriots are not afraid to get aggressive if it will help them get stops and win football games.

According to ProFootballFocus.com, Sam Bradford is a much worse quarterback under pressure than he is with a clean pocket, completing 20.1 percent fewer passes with a passer rating that is 19.3 points lower. So getting pressure on him is clearly a big key in slowing him down. He's also one of the top-10 most pressured quarterbacks in the NFL.

Give kudos to a good defensive game plan by the Patriots, but the level of competition they faced warrants hesitation in dubbing this a full-blown turnaround for the Patriots defense.

After all, the Rams have one of the worst offensive lines by nearly every metric available. 

Interestingly enough, a look at the three teams they've lost to points to some interesting trends. The Cardinals rank near the bottom of the league in each of the above indicators, while the Ravens and Seahawks both rank near the top.

The Patriots have struggled to get pressure against nearly every opponent they've faced, but it's only been prevalent in their losses.

The pressure helped big-time against the Rams, and as Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe points out, big plays have been the biggest difference for the Patriots defense. They rarely let opponents score on drives where they haven't created some sort of big play in the passing game.

But it wasn't all about the pressure. Devin McCourty has transitioned seamlessly to his new role at safety, having played all 84 defensive snaps at the position last week followed by 56 of 63 snaps on Sunday according to ESPN Boston. The plan was originally for him to remain at safety entering the 2012 season, and we are now seeing why.

At this point, all we can take away from Sunday's defensive performance is that New England finally figured out how to get stops in the passing game against a team they shouldn't have been giving up big plays to in the first place. It's a step forward, but there are many more steps to be taken before this defense can be considered on the come-up.

Will the Patriots continue to blitz coming out of the bye?

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If New England can figure out a way to continue to get consistent pressure and limit big pass plays coming out of the bye, their defense could be much improved in the second half of the season. They'll have to do it against better opponents before the national perception completely changes about this defense.

Even if that doesn't happen, the Patriots defense has gotten by with being "good enough" in the past, and with an offense that's playing as consistently as New England's did on Sunday, "good enough" should do just fine.

 

Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.

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