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Is help on the way?

Hurting Patriots need a quick fix

FOXBOROUGH -- The sight of former Columbia halfback Robert Kraft walking through the Patriots locker room wearing a "Targeting September" T-shirt gave way to a humorous moment: This team is hurting.

Kraft was headed for the treadmill, not the practice field, but a few moments earlier, coach Bill Belichick acknowledged at his daily press conference that if the Patriots had to play yesterday, they would not have been able to field a 45-man roster.

Belichick said the Patriots have practiced without pads this week. They've gone through game preparation with their second-tier players, some of whom may never see the light of day in Sunday's game at Washington.

Another key player going down might force Kraft to the scout team. Team spokesman Stacey James was even asked if he was going to suit up at practice.

Yesterday, the growing injury list included tight end Fred Baxter, a special teams standout, who is questionable with a leg injury. But David Patten (knee) and Damien Woody (knee) appeared much better.

The Patriots could have adopted a "woe is us" attitude, but that is not the case. However, letting out information that would give the perception of a dire situation -- say, to the Redskins -- might be a valuable psychological ploy by the Patriots.

A prevailing theory is if the Patriots can get by without their key injured players and stay above .500, they would be in good position to make a postseason run in the last six or seven games of the season.

The theory is this: Younger players will get more experience, which should help later in the season when they'll be asked to provide depth. It also allows backup players plenty of playing time. That is the most positive scenario that could take place. The worst is that the Patriots are simply too banged up to compete.

"I don't think the team is focusing on who's out or who's not practicing," said veteran defensive end Anthony Pleasant. "We have to go out there and play with the guys we have. Two years ago, key guys were hurt and we still won.

"It's an opportunity to see what guys can do. By playing and gaining experience, you will get better. Well, let me put it this way, you're either going to get better or you're going to get worse. Guys backing up get opportunities to show their skills. You might be surprised. Sometimes you have hidden talent that's not on display because it's on the back burner."

Tedy Bruschi has no idea what the perception of the Patriots is right now, and he really doesn't care.

"We see this differently," he said. "Whoever is out there needs to get the job done. We've got two in a row and now just keep racking them up and then worry about the next week. I think the guys who will be playing are good players already. [Linebacker] Don Davis has been a starter for teams before. This is an opportunity for Matt [Chatham] to show some things he can do. He's been a quality special teams player. Larry [Izzo] has been around, too."

Though the Patriots are relatively healthy on the defensive line -- except for Ted Washington (fractured left leg), who is out indefinitely -- one young player who could get more time is No. 1 draft pick Ty Warren. Through three games, Warren has not been a factor, but if the Patriots play a 4-3 defense because of the injuries to their linebackers, Warren could be thrown into the fire.

"I feel like I've been getting better every day," Warren said. "I'm on track to get where I want to get. I'm taking advice from some of the leaders like Richard Seymour and Tedy Bruschi. I'm not saying I'm at the top of my game, but I stay confident. I'm not not going to make decisions, I'm a rookie. When the coach feels I can contribute, I'm ready for it."

Warren said a possible scheme change to the 4-3 would not be disruptive because he went through it at Texas A&M. He said although the defense is complicated, the biggest difference is the number of plays the Patriots run.

The injury to Mike Compton, who is on injured reserve with a broken right foot, has been understated because teammates consider him the true leader of the offensive line.

Yet, it has opened up an opportunity for fifth-round draft pick Dan Koppen, the former Boston College player who is the starter at center with Woody moving to right guard.

"All along I've just come in and done what the coaches have told me to do," said Koppen. "I've walked into a good situation right now and so far things are going good. We have a philosophy here that if one guy goes down, then another goes in and he's going to play as hard as the starter. Playing next to these guys, they're all good. Everybody's good in this league."

If cornerback Ty Law (sprained right ankle) can't play, fourth-round pick Asante Samuel gets to cover the top receiver. And there'll be opportunities for guys such as fourth-round pick Dan Klecko.

There will be an acceleration period for the younger guys. This might be good. This could also be bad, but at least it'll keep Kraft off the practice field.

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