It's easy to lock onto Patriots inside linebackers Monty Beisel and Chad Brown. And not because they so often line up in the middle of the defense.
At this point in their Patriot careers (three months for Brown, four for Beisel), their most distinguishing characteristics are related to who they don't look like: Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson.
Every time there is a successful run up the middle, even after just two exhibition games, many wonder whether Brown and Beisel failed to make a play that Bruschi or Johnson would have.
Brown admits that he knows the Patriots faithful are watching closely.
''I think Monty and I both put pressure on ourselves to be the best players we can be, but those guys are legends around here for a reason: because they've played [well] and made legendary plays," Brown said. ''We are two different guys trying to play those roles on the team, but we can't pretend to be those guys; we have to be Monty and Chad."
According to the principles involved, the real Monty and Chad have yet to show up.
Thursday night, in a 37-27 win over New England, New Orleans ripped the Patriots for 401 yards, including 187 on the ground. Stopping the run is a priority for any defense, and in the Patriots' 3-4, stuffing running plays is a key responsibility for the inside linebackers.
Clearly, at the point, the Patriots have some problems -- some of it is execution, some of it is confusion, and some of it may well be personnel.
''I can't even begin to judge the team or anybody else," Brown said. ''I'm still trying to figure out what the heck I've got to do and find a way to do it better.
''I'm playing a position that's basically new to me, [with] a whole new style and terminology of defense that they run here, so trying to couple those two together, it's been tough. But I did some things better [against the Saints] than I did last week and I've got to keep building on those and working to get better."
Coach Bill Belichick said the linebacker play is getting better, but is far from where it needs to be.
''I think we're doing some things better than we did a week ago and a lot of things better than we did two weeks ago," Belichick said on a conference call yesterday afternoon. ''We had some errors, especially in the running game, but we had 'em in coverage, too.
''Defensively, it was no all-star performance, that's for sure."
Belichick said the defense's costly breakdowns were a result of not having ''everybody on the same page."
Not only are Brown and Beisel new to the team as offseason free agent signees, but Mike Vrabel, who has been out for a week with an ankle injury, is making the switch inside.
''I think the linebacker group is coming along. There are a couple of new people in there that have to get used to playing with each other and also get used to playing in our defense," Belichick said. ''That's a little bit of a work in progress."
Belichick said he has no way of knowing when those players will get comfortable.
''It depends on the player," he said. ''I don't think there's any set formula for anything. I think part of it is any time a player goes from one system to another, one thing that could be a problem is breaking old habits. It's not that you don't understand what the new responsibilities or plays are, but just the fact that you've been doing something a long time and you're kind of used to doing it -- it's a habit -- and that's not what's required in the other system. And that means kind of undoing something before you can even start to do something new.
''Sure, there is a period of time where you are a little bit, I don't know, unsure might be the word, or it might just be that you're not reacting as quickly as you would when you become more confident and have experienced more plays."
One linebacker who would not be new to the system is Roman Phifer, who spent the last four seasons with the Patriots. Phifer, 37, has been rehabbing from shoulder surgery throughout the offseason and contemplating retirement, though he has discussed a possible return to the team with Belichick.
Last week, Belichick said he wouldn't guess whether Phifer, a free agent, would be back. Yesterday, Belichick said he didn't know that Phifer was the only person not on the roster to have a nameplate above a stall in the Patriots' locker room.
''I wasn't even aware of it, honestly," the coach said. ''I don't know whether it is or it isn't [there]. If you're asking me to confirm it or deny it, I couldn't even do that. I don't know."
Belichick said no decision has been made on the No. 2 quarterback battle between Rohan Davey and Doug Flutie.
''When we get enough information to do that and we feel comfortable doing it, then we'll do it, but that hasn't been done yet," Belichick said.
Flutie played well Thursday after taking over for Tom Brady. Davey, who didn't play against the Saints, was erratic in almost two quarters of play in a start at Cincinnati in the exhibition opener.
Rookie Matt Cassel struggled some in the fourth quarter against the Saints, but quite possibly has shown enough to make the roster.
Belichick reported no significant new injuries, saying the team suffered only the ''usual bumps and bruises."
The Patriots do not practice today or tomorrow, but have a closed workout Monday.