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Belichick takes the reins

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 28, 2009 08:40 AM

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FOXBOROUGH -- On fourth and 1 from his own 24-yard line, late in the third quarter of a game his team led by six points, Bill Belichick went for it. And with that single decision, the esteemed coach of the Patriots told you everything you need to know at the moment about the state of his football team.

In the absence of any real on-field leadership, the coach is taking full control.

"The short yardage in our own end, I felt like we could get a yard,’’ Belichick said after the Pats claimed a 26-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons at Gillette Stadium. "I’m sure there would have been plenty of criticism if we didn’t, but we were able to hold onto the ball for a while. If I’m not mistaken, we were pretty much able to hold onto the ball for the rest of the third quarter.’’

And as we all know by now, Bill Belichick is rarely mistaken.

For what it’s worth, a great deal of time has passed since the Patriots last attempted such a bold maneuver, which should tell you plenty. Until yesterday, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Patriots had not attempted to convert a fourth down inside of their own 25-yard line since Oct. 30, 1994. That was 15 years ago. Facing the Miami Dolphins and with his team in the midst of what would become a four-game losing streak, then-coach Bill Parcells went for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 22 with 1:35 left in the half of what was a 6-3 Dolphins lead. The Tuna didn’t like the way that game -- or that season -- was progressing, and so he tried to take charge himself.

Drew Bledsoe converted that play, though he threw an interception two plays later that would give Miami the ball on the Patriots' 29-yard line, leading to a late touchdown and a 13-3 Miami advantage at halftime that resulted in a 23-3 Dolphins win. Those Pats ultimately slipped to 3-6 before tearing off seven straight wins to end the season, finishing at 10-6 to qualify for the postseason before being eliminated by -- you guessed it -- a Cleveland Browns team coached by none other than Bill Belichick.

What does that occurrence have to do with this one, 15 years later and with the Patriots identity changed forever? In some ways, nothing; in other ways, everything. The relevant point is that Belichick is now treating these Patriots in much the same way that Parcells treated those Pats, who were in Year II of great Parcells reconstruction. Belichick is assuming almost complete control of the game, simplifying things to the nth degree and leaving nothing to chance.

For all of the talk that took place (and will continue to) regarding the performance of the Patriots defense, do not delude yourselves. Belichick didn’t trust his defensive unit to start the game yesterday and he certainly didn’t trust his defense after Vince Wilfork went down with an ankle injury. That is precisely why he went for it on fourth and 1 from his own 24. The idea was to keep the ball away from the Atlanta offense and keep Tom Brady on the field, even if Brady was nothing more than a caretaker on a day the Pats clearly had no intentions of getting into a shootout.

Write down this number and remember it: 23:39. That is the amount of time, in minutes and seconds, the Patriots held the ball in the second half. The Falcons had it for all of 6:21. In the final two quarters, New England ran 51 plays from scrimmage to Atlanta’s 19. What Belichick and the Pats did to the Falcons yesterday was what the New York Giants did to the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV, when the Giants held onto the ball for 40:33 -- the Pats’ time of possession yesterday was 39:49 -- while patiently, slowly, moving the ball up and down the field to extend the most favorable matchup of the day: the New England offense versus the Atlanta defense.

As elementary as all of that is -- that is, after all, the oldest game plan in football -- it runs counter to what the Patriots have come to represent in recent years. In 2007, in particular, the Patriots wanted to score and they wanted to score quickly, showing little regard or respect for their opponents. You couldn’t stop them and they knew it. Whether because Brady is coming off an injury or Wes Welker remains sidelined or both, the Patriots offense yesterday was far more deliberate and methodical, operating like a unit as interested in keeping the ball as in punching into the end zone.

Again, for what it’s worth, the Falcons actually averaged more yards per play (5.7) than the Patriots (5.5). In fact, in all three New England games this season, the Patriots have averaged fewer yards per play than their opponent.

What all of this suggests, too, is that Belichick is taking great care in protecting his defense, which isn’t playing nearly as well as people think it is. Entering tonight’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers, the Patriots defense has been on the field for an average of just 24:04 per game, less than any team in football except the Giants. The average gain per play against them (5.3 yards) places them a perfectly mediocre 15th. The Pats’ defense hasn’t been good so much as it has been decent, and one can only wonder which way the scales would tip if the unit were asked to be on the field longer, particularly amid the absence of Jerod Mayo, Richard Seymour and, now, Vince Wilfork.

Undoubtedly, that is all a huge reason Belichick elected to roll the dice on his own 24-yard line with 5:19 to play in the third, a gamble that paid huge dividends. As Belichick noted, the Pats subsequently were able to hold onto the ball for a while. (He made no mention of the field goal produced by the drive.) In a worst-case, maybe Belichick figured that the Falcons would score a quick touchdown and take a 17-16 lead, at which point New England would get the ball back with a fresh set of downs needing only a field goal to take the lead.

"I think it was a big play for us in the game,’’ Brady said of the fourth-and-1 conversion. "We had a six-point lead and, if we get stopped, they’re already in field goal position.’’

As it turned out, the Pats didn’t get stopped, the play of choice being a Sammy Morris run that produced a two-yard gain. The Patriots subsequently ran off 11 more plays to kill the quarter, then converted a field goal on the first play of the fourth to take a 19-10 edge.

Once that happened, needing two scores to make up the difference, the Atlanta offense became far more one-dimensional. The Falcons ran just 10 more offensive plays in the game, eight passes and two runs. Michael Turner all but disappeared.

Entering this season, we all suspected the Patriots would have to rely on their offense to win games. We just thought the Pats would try to do it by scoring. Instead, what Belichick has done here is to simplify the game plan and play keep-away, opting for a more conservative offense built on ball control. To date, the Patriots are the only team in the NFL that has yet to commit a fumble, let alone lose one. Only Green Bay has committed as few turnovers (two).

In the end, the Patriots generally have been playing it safe these days.

And when it has come to take calculated risks, their coach is the one taking them.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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