Patriots' defense grows into job

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quarterback Tom Brady will get his due for leading the 30th fourth-quarter comeback of his career, receiver Deion Branch's return to the New England Patriots was just like old times and rookie Zoltan Mesko's 65-yard punt in overtime shifted field position and was one of the plays of the game.

But don't forget about the Patriots' most maligned unit when considering how the team pulled out a scintillating 23-20 overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

The defense was dynamite down the stretch.

Carved up not only by opposing offenses but also by an aggressive media corps, the growing-on-the-job unit held the Ravens to punts on their final five possessions, the final three coming in overtime. That kept the game close and gave the offense time to work out its own issues. Talk about an improbable storyline.

"We stepped up when we needed to step up," said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, a team captain whose leadership was credited by players for keeping the D together.

"All year on third down, we've had problems in that area. Then something went off and we basically turned it around. It's third down and we get off the field. Once we can get off the field, we're a totally different defense."

A tactical change, which came after the Patriots were scorched on third-and-10, third-and-9 and third-and-11 situations early in the game, helped spark the turnaround.

On those third-and-long plays, the Patriots lined up in a 4-2-5 nickel defense, with four rushers, two linebackers and five defensive backs. Obviously unhappy with the results, they substituted a linebacker for a defensive lineman, making it a 3-3-5.

Having one fewer rusher often put the Patriots into more of a coverage mode and explained why rookie linebacker Dane Fletcher -- an underdog free agent out of Montana State who wears Ted Johnson's old No. 52 -- started showing up on the field in more key situations.

The goal was to get more physical with Ravens pass-catchers at the line of scrimmage and take away quarterback Joe Flacco's first read. When Flacco doesn't see his first read open, Patriots defenders said, he has a tendency to look at the rush, so New England tried to disrupt the rhythm of Baltimore's passing game that way.

The first time the Patriots went to the 3-3-5 was a third-and-6 play late in the second quarter. Flacco attempted to run for the first down, and after a replay review, was ruled short of the first-down marker.

The Patriots stuck with that scheme for most third-down situations, with some of the biggest plays coming in overtime.

"They made adjustments and we didn't capitalize on them," Ravens running back Ray Rice said.

Ravens tight end Todd Heap (3 catches, 49 yards, 1 TD) was a big part of the Patriots' focus.

"I felt like they made it tough for Todd to get off the line," Flacco said. "When he did get off the line I felt like it was pretty tough for them, but they did a good job to make sure they doubled him a couple of times and made sure it was tough for us to get our routes going."

While the tactical change was a crucial part of the defensive turnaround, not to be overlooked was the role of the standard base 3-4 alignment that started rookies Brandon Deaderick (end), Jermaine Cunningham (outside linebacker) and Brandon Spikes (inside linebacker).

The defining play from that unit came with 9:10 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Ravens facing a third-and-1 after the Patriots had cut the lead to 20-17. Flacco attempted a sneak, but was denied.

"That's a test of character," said veteran defensive lineman Gerard Warren.

While the Patriots' stonewalling of Flacco was an example of them meeting the physical challenge -- something they didn't do in last year's playoffs against the Ravens -- it turned out the play was also a result of film study.

"I knew he was going to do that," Wilfork said, citing that he had seen the same formation on film multiple times, with Flacco motioning running back Le'Ron McClain out wide and then sneaking it. "He isn't throwing the ball on third-and-1 and my teammates understand that, too. That's good awareness from a defensive standpoint and playing good situational football."

Wilfork called it the most physical game in which he's ever played, and from that play on, the defense looked different than it had for significant chunks of the game and, for that matter, long stretches of each of the team's first four games.

No one is saying the defense has it all figured out, as there are certainly still issues to iron out. But when the game was hanging in the balance on Sunday, a most unexpected thing happened.

The much-maligned defense delivered.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.