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ON FOOTBALL

Offense makes good points

There is more to it than TDs

Complain, complain, complain.

Certainly the Patriots' offense isn't the second coming of Kansas City, St. Louis, or Minnesota. It has had its problems. The Patriots didn't score a touchdown in a 9-3 win over the Cleveland Browns. They barely scored enough points to get by the Miami Dolphins, 19-13, in overtime. They were sluggish in a 17-6 win over the New York Giants. They were shut out in the opening game vs. Buffalo. How they could only score 17 points in a loss to Washington?

They've scored 13 offensive touchdowns in eight games and are averaging 19.3 points per game (aided by four defensive touchdowns), highlighted by 38 points against Tennessee, 31 against Philadelphia, and 23 against the Jets. Their red zone production could be better, though who expected five missed field goals from Adam Vinatieri?

Maybe it's the weak link on the team, but here are 10 points about the offense that may add some sunshine:

1. Shut up. They're 6-2.

2. They finally have an offensive line that can run-block.

3. They finally have an offensive line that can pass-block.

4. They have a runner (Kevin Faulk) who can gain important yardage.

5. They have a quarterback who has set an example for the rest of the team, playing hurt.

6. They have a deep threat, maybe two in Bethel Johnson and Deion Branch.

7. Their ultimate playmaker, their ultimate football player, Troy Brown, is healthy and making big plays.

8. Criticize offensive coordinator Charlie Weis for plays here and there, but he has created balance and maintained his ability to trick the opponent.

9. They're not turning the ball over.

10. The Patriots have played against some very good defenses over the first eight games.

First of all, this is a team based on defense. The role of the offense, as in 2001, is to sustain drives and keep the defense reasonably fresh. Against Cleveland this past Sunday, the Patriots controlled the ball by running effectively (Faulk had 96 yards). They also rediscovered tight end Daniel Graham, their No. 1 draft pick of two years ago, who had 7 catches for 110 yards.

When was the last time you saw New England offensive linemen opening holes and making big blocks to spring big runs? It's happening. Sure, the Patriots are still not running the ball at the preferred 4-yards-per-carry pace, but they haven't done that since 1985. This team (currently at 3.7 yards per carry), could be up to 4 yards by the end of the year.

"It's fun out there," said Damien Woody. "We're an offensive line that enjoys run-blocking, and I think we're doing better each week with it."

The linemen often spoke about needing to be put in position to develop their run-blocking. The commitment has been there. The Patriots are using an average of 29.1 running plays per game as opposed to 32.8 passes. After the team lost a true football Cro-Magnon in Mike Compton (out for the season with a broken foot), it appeared they had lost that spirit for run-blocking.

Wrong.

Center Dan Koppen has fresh, young legs (though he was seen leaving the X-ray room following Sunday's game), and he uses his technically sound Boston College fundamentals, which have made a big difference. That has enabled Woody to play guard full-time, and he's been extremely explosive on runs. On the right side, Joe Andruzzi and Tom Ashworth, though called for two illegal cut blocks last week, are lunch-pailing it and smacking people.

The pass-blocking also has improved. Tom Brady has been sacked 17 times (same as through eight games last season), only four in the last three games. He can ill afford to get whacked often after the throw; that wouldn't be good for his improving right elbow and shoulder. Certainly he can't hide from contact, but the line is allowing him more time to find receivers.

In the running back-by-committee setup, Faulk is quickly becoming the centerpiece. As long as he doesn't fumble, which he did in Miami, he could take the job outright in the weeks to come. The Patriots are still tailoring the running game to the type of defense they're facing and the game situation, but the fit looks better with Faulk right now than it does from a still-hurting Antowain Smith (shoulder). Mike Cloud has been a nice contributor, but last week he was inactive.

The important aspect of the ground game is not the amount of yardage per se, but the ability to run time off the clock and seal a game in the fourth quarter to protect a lead. That's what Smith did so well for the Patriots in '01.

We mentioned in an earlier column this season that Brady had a high rating on the Steve Grogan Toughness Meter. Grogan made a great point back then, that Brady, showing he can stay on the field despite the number of injuries the team has sustained, is a huge factor in team confidence. Sure enough, Brady has done that. Maybe he's not having a Pro Bowl season, but in his case effectiveness can't be extrapolated from numbers. Winning games is what's important, and he helped win the Tennessee game with great throws, and he won the Miami game with one very long line drive to Brown for 82 yards.

Johnson might be the biggest weapon this team has had in a while. The Texas A&M rookie can't be covered man-to-man. The Patriots are starting to find him downfield alone. The first play of the Cleveland game was a sign: a 45-yard bomb down the left sideline. Johnson continues to claim we haven't seen his "A speed," but his A-minus or B speed isn't bad.

And for sure, Brown continues to be the player opponents can't ignore. Brown is to the offense what Romeo Crennel's schemes are to the defense. There's no pattern. Brown doesn't run the same route the same way twice. He runs with pure instinct, knowing how to get open. His body position when he turns to receive the ball is textbook. Just as with some of the things Jerry Rice does, you can't teach that stuff.

Weis is still a coordinator players love to play for. He keeps it interesting with different types of plays, but he's also allowed the players to maintain a very physical nature in their game -- a combination of smashmouth and finesse.

No, it hasn't led to a large number of points, but when the schedule softens in the second half, the drives that are cut short because of strong defense may result in higher points.

The best thing about the Patriots offense is that it generally does not shoot itself in the foot. Brady went through an interception spree early in the season, but in the last four games, he has not thrown the ball to the wrong-colored shirt. When Brady doesn't throw an interception, the Patriots win -- all six times.

The Patriots have not faced a bottom-10 defense. Three of the teams they've faced -- Buffalo, Cleveland, Miami -- were ranked in the top 11.

We've covered all 10 points. Now, let's go back to the top: "Shut up. They're 6-2."

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