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MIDWEEK REPORT

A throwback day on offense

Utilizing old strategy served Patriots well

FOXBOROUGH -- They had been a vital part of the Patriots' attack in recent years.

There's short time on the clock and a good chunk of yardage needed to score points. Or maybe a simple change of pace is required in the middle of the game. Call on the hurry-up offense.

There's an attacking defense on the other side of the line of scrimmage, looking to disrupt the hurry-up. Counter-punch with the screen pass.

The hurry-up and screen pass are a natural pairing, and few teams had been as proficient at executing them as the Tom Brady-led Patriots. But the execution had been off for much of the 2006 season.

Sunday might have marked a rebirth.

The Patriots went to the hurry-up set four times in their 28-21 victory over the Lions, and the result -- with three crucial screen passes part of the mix -- was two touchdowns, one field goal, and one lost fumble. It was one of the areas coach Bill Belichick was particularly pleased with in his team's otherwise uneven performance.

"It's been tough all year," Belichick said of the hurry-up. "It's good to see it come alive here a few times recently. It was a huge factor in the game."

Through 12 games this season, the Patriots have had 17 drives in which they used the hurry-up, no-huddle attack to a significant degree, with eight resulting in no points, five in touchdowns, and four in field goals.

On the surface, those numbers might suggest the Patriots should employ the hurry-up more often. But a closer look reveals a pattern of inconsistency.

Before Sunday's game, the team's best work probably came in a Week 2 win over the Jets, when the offense got the ball on the 50 with 1:01 until halftime and Brady hooked up with Chad Jackson on a 13-yard touchdown with 14 seconds until halftime. On the flip side, the low point was probably against the Colts Nov. 5 when two hurry-up drives -- one at the end of the first half and one at the end of the game -- ended in interceptions.

"It's been frustrating," Belichick said. "But hopefully, as we get more confidence in it, it's starting to come around."

In addition to a lack of consistency, another reason the Patriots haven't employed the hurry-up as much is their preference to have two tight ends on the field, as Brady explained after Sunday's victory. When the Patriots go to the hurry-up, the personnel grouping usually includes running back Kevin Faulk, tight end Benjamin Watson, and three receivers.

When the hurry-up is working, Brady likes it because "when you can get that defense being more defensive, kind of sitting back on their heels, it definitely creates an advantage for the offense."

And perhaps no play in the hurry-up puts the defense on its heels more than the screen pass, which the Patriots revived Sunday.

The first of three screens -- a 20-yarder to Faulk with 26 seconds left in the second quarter -- set up a just-before-the-gun 27-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.

"I thought Kevin made a real good play, where he gained quite a bit of yardage but was able to get outside and down the sideline and get out of bounds to stop the clock," said Belichick. "It was a perfect situational play at that point because we didn't have any timeouts."

Then, on the Patriots' tying touchdown drive, Faulk struck again on the first play, this time for a 13-yard gain to the right side. Center Dan Koppen, right guard Stephen Neal, and left guard Logan Mankins all were out front on the play. Later in the drive, Patrick Pass took a screen pass 16 yards down the left side.

Three screens, 49 yards. Plays made possible by the athleticism of the interior offensive linemen: Mankins, Neal, and Koppen.

"I thought our linemen did a real good job," Belichick said. "They have a tough job because they're kind of blocking their guy and then they have to let them go and get out there. Then when they get out there, they kind of have to recognize what the coverage is -- is it man, is it zone?

"There are a lot of moving parts on the screen. They did a good job sorting that stuff out and making contact blocks down the field and giving the runners an opportunity to find some space and go. The screen bailed us out a couple of times."

Given the success of the screen, the natural question is why the Patriots haven't run more of them. Belichick credited opponents for successfully defending those plays, while noting that screens are one of the few plays on which Brady knows where he's throwing the ball before the snap.

"The problem with the screen is it's really a one-man route. If that guy is not open, then you don't really have anything else," said Belichick. "You're either throwing the ball away or taking a loss on the play. So you don't want to be doing that. It just cuts down your options."

And, as has been illustrated over the last few years, the Patriots are all about options. After Sunday's performance, the team is more likely to call on two options that have been calling cards in the past.

Welcome back, hurry-up offense and screen pass.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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