Raiders Return to Foxboro
By Dave Fletcher
And so it begins Thursday night at Gillette Stadium. The New England Patriots will take the field in a meaningful game for the first time since departing Jacksonville’s Alltel Stadium as Super Bowl champions for the third time in four years.
The Patriots are no strangers to being the hunted so far this decade. In fact, this is the first time New England begins a title defense without facing the team they beat in the previous year’s conference championship game. The Pats don’t have to worry about fending off the vengeful Steelers or Colts, as they did in 2002 and 2004, respectively. This season begins with a game against the Raiders, who are looking to get back on track after a disappointing 5-11 campaign last year.
But as always, the Patriots don’t care to dwell on what happened last season. They’ve been in this position too many times now to think anything positive will come from that.
"Coach Belichick always makes a point that we're not defending anything,” Tom Brady said on Monday. “Because when you defend something, that means it can be taken away. And you can't take that championship away from us.”
Brady is much more worried about what the Raiders may be able to take away from them when he and his offense take the field Thursday. “They’re challenging on all fronts. They have active linebackers, a very strong secondary and their defensive line really rushes the quarterback,” Brady said.
With three wide receivers listed as questionable on New England’s injury report -- David Givens, Bethel Johnson and Andre’ Davis -- the Pats may need to contain some familiar faces in order to be successful.
Former Patriots Bobby Hamilton and Ted Washington make up half of Oakland’s 4-3 defensive front, which ranked 22nd in the league last year in rushing defense. The Raiders hope to take advantage of their bulk up front and use less 3-4 alignments this season in an attempt to improve that ranking.
Head coach Norv Turner sees similarities in the development of his defense when he looks back at New England’s defensive rise. He hopes defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can bring a similar improvement to Oakland’s defense that he helped cultivate in New England during his time as a linebackers coach.
“Rob and I talk a lot, and the first year in New England when that system was first being installed, there were things I’m sure they wish they could have over or things they know they needed to do better based on being in the system,” Turner said. “We have more team speed and we have better pass rush ability in a system (in its) second year.”
The pass rush will be key against the Patriots if the Raiders hope to force mistakes and, ultimately, turnovers -- something Brady’s offense isn’t prone to at home. Oakland had a negative-17 turnover differential last season. That number would spell doom if duplicated in Foxboro.
Brady, for one, isn’t expecting to see an Oakland defense that mirrors New England’s simply because Ryan is on the opposing sideline.
“Ultimately, it always revolves around the players you have. The things that we ran here (when Ryan was here) and were successful with, maybe sometimes you try to implement those but it doesn’t end up being the same,” said Brady. “Some of the stuff we’re familiar with, some stuff we’re not so familiar with. The tough part about opening game is they can really run whatever they want.”
That, of course, also applies to New England’s defense, which will have its hands full with the Raiders’ revamped offense. Newcomers Randy Moss and Lamont Jordan will present a worthy challenge to the Patriots.
The Patriots don’t have any one cornerback who can contain Moss for an entire game and Belichick remains tight-lipped as to who he envisions lining up across from the star wideout. Asante Samuel and Randall Gay are listed as starters on the depth chart, with Tyrone Poole not far behind. Duane Starks is listed as questionable on the injury report and didn’t practice Tuesday. It’s likely that all the corners will get a crack at shadowing Moss at some point in the game, especially if Eric Mangini employs a zone defense.
“If you're playing man-to-man coverage and you want to double a player in man-to-man coverage, you commit two people to him. You can play him a number of different ways,” Belichick said. “If you don't play man-to-man coverage, if you play zone coverage, then it's sort of hard to double him because everybody is playing a zone.”
The key to derailing Oakland’s offensive attack will come down to how well they confuse quarterback Kerry Collins. Belichick hinted that New England will show multiple defensive fronts to Collins.
“You'd like for the quarterback to have to identify (the defensive set) after the snap and as he's coming up to the line of scrimmage and calling the signals and setting the formation up,” Belichick said. “If he goes up there and he's thinking, ‘It could be this. It could be that. They might be blitzing over here.’ Okay, now the ball is snapped, now he has to identify where all of those players are going, those seven or eight players -- whatever it is….You're taxing him a little bit more and maybe he'll make a mistake.”
Collins threw 13 of his 20 interceptions and had a 66.4 QB rating in road games last year. If the Patriots can rattle him into a miscue or two, they’ll be well on their way to beginning their quest for a three-peat on the right foot.
It’s a formula that has worked well for them in the past: Force mistakes on defense and play efficiently on offense. The Patriots may not want to dwell on what happened last season, but the manner in which they’ll go about winning games won't change.
What to look for: Where is Rodney Harrison? Keep an eye on where New England’s hard-hitting safety is when Oakland snaps the ball. Harrison will probably need to stay back in coverage so he can roll to Moss’ side on deep patterns. But the Patriots also like bringing him up to the line of scrimmage to disrupt rushing plays and blitz the quarterback. Harrison’s ability to make the big play, whether it be a sack, a forced fumble or an interception will go a long way in fulfilling Belichick’s plan to coax Collins out of his comfort zone.
Notes: The Patriots enter the game with a 20-game home winning streak, dating back to 2002 .… New England is 8-2 in their last 10 home openers …. The Raiders ranked last in time of possession on offense in 2004 .… Turner has kept an eye on the weather forecast for Foxboro on Thursday night. “It’s a little like Northern California weather right now,” he said. (No snow is expected) ….. Ryan joined the Patriots staff in 2000 as a linebackers coach. He served as outside linebackers coach from 2001-2003 …. Walt Coleman, the official who overturned Brady’s fumble in the 2001 “Snow Bowl” playoff game, told reporters that he would have been surprised if his crew had been assigned to work Thursday’s game. “I think the people on the west coast are still not convinced of the call yet … I have not had an assignment for the Raiders since that game.”
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