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Pre-Season Analysis - TSN - NE PATS - 6/9/03


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New England Patriots

Bob Leverone/TSN

Patriots Support Group

Vinnie Iyer and Michael Felger

The Sporting News


Will the team's defensive changes revert it back to its 2001 form?

Rosevelt Colvin gives the Patriots a speedy defender who fits perfectly as a rush end/linebacker in their scheme. Rodney Harrison brings some more attitude, toughness and savvy to the secondary and its run support. Rookie tackle Ty Warren should boost the energy of the team's line rotation.

The team could afford to aggressively go after a big name free agent such as Colvin and go defense first with Warren in the draft because it has been wise about its spending the past few years and already has a nice offense in place.

The Patriots overachieved to win the Super Bowl two and half years ago. They won't have to do so to be top AFC contenders this season, the fact they know they have won it all once will give the principal players extra confidence.

Last season, the Patriots proved they could put up points with anyone, but their struggles on run defense allowed opponents to play keep away with solid ball-control games. The Patriots need to go back to more ball control of their own, while making teams throw more vs. a tested veteran secondary.

The Patriots are the most well rounded team in a very talented AFC East, and they are just as capable of any team in the division to win it and continue to thrive in the playoffs. --Vinnie Iyer


The Patriots found out what it was like to be the hunted in 2002 after sneaking up on teams all the way to a Super Bowl championship the season before. They didn't enjoy the feeling.

Defending an NFL championship is hard enough, but when the talent on the roster doesn't quite match the shine on the Vince Lombardi Trophy, then the task becomes almost impossible. The Patriots won it all thanks to coaching and intangibles such as toughness, chemistry and good fortune. Those attributes take a team only so far, however, and that wasn't enough for a return to the playoffs last year.

So the long-range rebuilding program under coach Bill Belichick and personnel director Scott Pioli continues. It sounds funny, but Belichick and Pioli didn't "intend" to win the Super Bowl in Year 2 of their tenure. It just happened that way.

This season will be a more accurate gauge of how Belichick and Pioli have built the team. They have now had four drafts and four turns in free agency. The holdovers from the Bill Parcells/Pete Carroll eras are becoming less significant by the day. The foundation is in place and the pressure to defend a title is gone. Belichick and Pioli are left on their own.

The Patriots had a good offseason, adding the biggest free-agent name in franchise history, outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. The draft lacked marquee value, but the Patriots managed to get bigger and faster on defense, which was desperately needed.

Those upgrades should be enough to push the team back into the postseason. If they don't amount to that, it would be a huge disappointment to an organization that has become championship driven.


QB Tom Brady: Brady was a better quarterback in 2002 than he was during his fairy-tale 2001 season. Not that anybody noticed, as expectations dogged Brady more profoundly than any other player on the roster. Brady clearly felt it, and when the team dipped at midseason, he stepped out of character and started taking risks on the field. The results were predictable, as the situation just got worse.

Brady is neither particularly big nor fast and has only average arm strength, but he is effective because of his intelligence, poise and usually good decision-making. Brady's fundamentals are tremendous and his mastery of play-action is approaching Peyton Manning's level. Best of all, those skills remain with Brady when the game is on the line.

Brady should improve this season as the receiving talent around him continues to develop. However, to raise his game another notch, Brady must become more consistent on passes that are more than 10 yards downfield. Until he does that, defenses will continue to crowd the line of scrimmage and the Patriots' offense will be stuck in the mud. Brady also should continue to work on his mobility.

RB Antowain Smith: The running game was mediocre at best last season (28th in the league), but nothing has been done to provide a substantial upgrade. The Patriots didn't draft a running back, nor did they make a play for one in free agency. Once again, it looks like the Patriots will put all their faith in Smith.

It's not exactly an exciting prospect for fans but, as Belichick points out, the Patriots have won 23 games and a Super Bowl in the past two years with Smith as the primary ballcarrier. And as sluggish as Smith looked at times last season, his average yards per carry (3.9) was similar to what he had in 2001 (4.0). The difference was in rushing touchdowns -- six last year compared to 12 in '01.

Still, Smith knows he must be better, and the Patriots intend to push him in that direction. He can help matters by showing up to training camp in shape, which he has failed to do in each of the past two years.

If Smith can drop some weight and improve his quickness, it will go a long way toward solving his biggest problem: hitting the hole and running north-south. When Smith does that, he is a bruiser who wears down defenses. When he runs east-west, he is just another back.

Perhaps Smith will be pushed by 2002 seventh-round pick Antwoine Womack, who sat out last season with a knee injury. Had Womack been healthy, he probably would have been a third-round pick, so the potential is there. When he is at his best, Womack is a physical, between-the-tackles runner.

OLB Rosevelt Colvin: Colvin is the perfect Belichick player because of his versatility. Colvin can rush the passer or drop back into coverage, whether he is lined up as a defensive end or an outside linebacker. That gives Belichick the ability to disguise his 3-4 and 4-3 fronts.

Aside from that, Colvin should greatly improve the defense solely based on his speed and ability to get to the quarterback. He is the type of impact defender the Patriots' front seven has been missing for years.


As usual, Belichick will let his personnel dictate his strategies. The addition of Colvin, a pass-rushing specialist, makes it easy for Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to install a 3-4 scheme as the team's base defense. That will also allow Pro Bowl tackle Richard Seymour to move away from the center, where he often lined up in the 4-3, and play end in the 3-4, where he can be more effective.

The Patriots had major problems trying to stop the run last season (they were 31st in the league), which means one can expect to see former Chargers strong safety Harrison playing his customary role near the line of scrimmage.

Belichick's defense features a variety of alignments up front and multiple coverages in the secondary, all of which changes weekly depending on the opponent. It's a scheme that requires smart players, and Crennel has an invaluable role as an interpreter.

Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis must address the run-pass balance. The Patriots called 636 pass plays in 2002, which dwarfed their 395 calls to run the ball. The scoreboard dictated much of that as the Patriots had to put the ball in the air once they fell behind. Returning to a more physical, smash-mouth style up front would help the whole offense, especially Brady and Smith.

However, if Smith plays as uninspired as he did last season, then there is no reason to give him the ball. The Patriots won't run the ball just for the sake of running it.

The Patriots also would like to be more productive throwing downfield but, again, that will be a function of the personnel.


There are more talented teams in the league, but the Patriots have more talent than they did when they won the Super Bowl after the 2001 season.


With a middle-of-the pack schedule and middle-of-the-pack expectations, the Patriots will go back to near anonymity in 2003. That's a good thing.

The roster has been upgraded in key spots, and the signing of Colvin should give the defense an entirely different look. Offensively, significant progress from a handful of youngsters will be crucial.

Although holes remain, the Patriots have enough talent and coaching to win the AFC East. There's no reason why they shouldn't go deep into the playoffs.

Michael Felger covers the Patriots for the Boston Herald.

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