On Balance, the Pats Will Score
By John MacKenna, site contributor
The New England Patriots have climbed to the top of the NFL pile as a defense-first
team. Quarterback Tom Brady has two Super Bowl MVP trophies, but it is the stifling
defense of Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel that is primarily responsible for
two title runs in three years.
Times change, however, and the Patriots are poised to launch a new era of offensive
dominance based on balance and a wealth of emerging young talent. Expect the
Patriots to score five or more offensive touchdowns in a few games this year,
perhaps as soon as Oct. 3 in Buffalo.
The days when defenses could key on Offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis's short
passing attack ended last Sunday in Arizona when new running back Corey Dillon
ran for 158 yards, serving notice that the Patriots at last have a running game
that they can count on every week.
"At this point, we have some balance and hopefully we can keep it,"
said Head Coach Bill Belichick. Indeed, Dillon's presence will tempt defenses
to cheat into the box, exposing thin areas in coverage that Brady can exploit.
The first beneficiary of Dillon's dangerous presence was tight end Daniel Graham,
who scored two touchdowns in the first half against Arizona. In his third season,
Graham is starting to look like the first-rounder he is. "He had a really
good offseason," said Belichick. "His confidence level is good. He
took a lot of reps in the spring camps and got off to a good start in training
camp. He has taken a lot of snaps, and I think that he has developed a confidence
in his own play. He and Tom [Brady] have been able to work together because
they have both been on the field every day. I think there are a lot of signs
there for improvement, and all of those elements weren't always completely in
Wide receiver David Givens also showed what he can do in the Arizona game,
grabbing six passes for 118 yards. Brady this week discussed Givens' emergence.
"Now that he's picked up more of the passing game and learned more about
the offense and what we're trying to do here, he's really established a role."
Graham and Givens alone are trouble enough, but the Patriots have plenty more
receiving threats. Third-year wideout Deion Branch was quiet last week, but
only because he was forced from the game at the end of the first half. He had
seven receptions for 86 yards in Week One, and he was very strong last postseason
with 15 receptions for 163 yards in the postseason, including 10 for 143 yards
in the Super Bowl.
Wideout David Patten was also forced from the Arizona game, but he already
has 125 receiving yards on the season. And he appears to be back at full strength
after missing most of the '03 campaign with injuries. In '02, he caught 61 for
Veteran Troy Brown is also awaiting his turn to make some noise. Brady sent
a bomb his way on the last passing play of the Arizona game but overthrew it.
Brown will be lucky to catch 40 passes this year, but defenses still owe him
Graham, Givens, Branch, Patten and Brown are trouble enough for any secondary,
but the Patriots have even more. Second-year wideout Bethel Johnson has only
17 receptions in his young career, but his outstanding speed makes him a deep
threat that Weis can use to spread the defense and create more space underneath.
If Johnson is on the field with, say Branch and Givens, one of the three will
be covered by a safety or nickel back, and that's a dangerous situation.
Rookie tight end Benjamin Watson could blossom any time. He is big (6'3",
253) like Graham with outstanding speed and quickness. Brady already likes to
go to Graham, and Watson could become another choice target.
In Brady, the Patriots have a QB who knows how to get the most production from
a receiving corps whose strength is its depth. He is the master of picking on
a secondary's weak links. Weis says Brady knows how to make the most of all
the options the offense presents. "He has the ball in his hands, and that
is a good thing, to know you have a guy that really understands what we are
trying to do."
The Bills have surrendered only 13 points in each of their first two games,
but the Patriots could torch them for plenty more. The Bills were able to contain
the Raiders last Sunday and limit Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon to 209 yards
passing, but then the Raiders didn't pose much of a run threat with Tyrone Wheatley
and Amos Zereoue, who combined for just 45 yards. The Jaguars couldn't do much
either with the Bills' defense in Week One, rushing for only 83 yards and passing
for 142. But then Jags QB Byron Leftwich is no Tom Brady.
The Bills defense can shut down the likes of the Jaguars or the Raiders because
it is fundamentally strong up front and in the secondary. Bills' defensive tackles
Sam Adams and Pat Williams might shut off the middle against New England, but
Dillon did most of his damage outside tackle against the Cardinals, and he could
hit the Bills hard there too. The Bills harassed Gannon by sending Linebacker
London Fletcher on the blitz, but Fletcher should have his hands full with Dillon
The Bills' weakness is lack of depth in the secondary, and Brady should have
an easy time finding openings. Bills cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Nate Clements
provided enough coverage against the Raiders to end Jerry's Rice streak of 274
consecutive games with a reception, but they can't cover four or five New England
receivers by themselves. Receivers like Graham, Watson, Troy Brown and even
Givens will find themselves matched against safeties and linebackers. Bills
free safety Izell Reese has decent cover skills, but strong safety Coy Wire,
filling in for the injured Lawyer Milloy, could get abused by Brady.
The Bills' offense, meanwhile, is a rather meek affair. Bledsoe has passed
for only 351 yards in the first two games. Travis Henry has rushed for only
142 yards and no TDs, and Willis McGahee is barely ahead of last year's pace.
The game will be a blowout if the Patriots manage even three touchdowns.
Should the Bills keep the Patriots' in check Oct. 3, the reprieve could be
temporary because the Patriots offense will strengthen as the season unfolds.
Before Buffalo travels to Foxborough Nov. 14, the Patriots' offensive line should
stabilize as Belichick abandons the rotation he's using now in favor of a set
lineup. Also, look for Watson and Johnson to emerge as receiving threats. One
last thing: The Patriots have been playing without running back Kevin Faulk,
who last year was second on the team in receptions with 48.
Let the blowouts begin.
John Will be a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him
in the forums
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