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ON FOOTBALL

He's a fast learner

Johnson stars with big catch

FOXBOROUGH -- For a long time yesterday the men and women huddled four rows deep around Bethel Johnson's locker knew what Terreal Bierria felt like 45 minutes earlier. Bethel Johnson was behind them.

As they stood fretting as they stared at Johnson's empty shoes, they were journalists looking for a story they feared was long gone, like the receiver himself. They all were looking for a wideout who had just redeemed himself a week after taking up residence in Bill Belichick's doghouse, and probably had saved his team in the process.

But like Bierria and fellow safety Ken Hamlin, they were searching for Johnson without much luck.

This all came about because with 2:45 to play and the Patriots clinging to a 23-20 lead that once had been a 20-3 lead, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis sent Johnson out on a deep route across the width of Seattle's secondary, a route in which he ran a second receiver on a slant that pulled the Seahawks' fastest cornerback, Marcus Trufant, into the middle of the field and away from Johnson.

That left the Patriots' fastest receiver sprinting full out in front of Bierria, Seattle's strong but far-from-fast safety. It was a bigger mismatch than the media trying to track Johnson down after the game to ask him about the diving, 48-yard reception that turned a third and 7 at the New England 40 into a first and 10 at the Seattle 12 with 2:09 to go.

Unable to cover the play when it happened, the Seahawks did all they could do after the fact, which was to challenge the call, hoping replay official Bobby Skelton and referee Terry McAulay might be convinced that the ball hit the ground without Johnson having it fully in his possession. To that, Johnson had but one thought.

"Puh-leeze!"

"I knew it was a catch," Johnson said when he finally was coaxed out of the players' lounge, where he'd taken his clothes in hope of going unnoticed for the second time in an hour. "I wasn't worried about it."

Johnson doesn't worry about much, apparently, be it opposing defenders, deep passes, or angry coaches. All he does, and what he did yesterday, was turn his only catch of the day into a game-breaking play, exactly the type of play the Patriots hoped he'd make when they selected him on the second round of the '03 draft.

"That's a big-time catch," New England running back Corey Dillon said of Johnson's full-gainer grab. "Without that catch, who knows? Without that catch, we can't even begin to say what would have happened."

True, but with that catch we can say exactly what happened. Dillon soon after ran into the end zone with a 9-yard touchdown that made the lead an insurmountable 30-20 with 1:55 to play. For all intents and purposes, the issue was finally settled, and the Patriots had set up a battle of unbeatens next Sunday when the Jets (5-0) come to visit New England (5-0) at Razor Blade Field. Somebody's Oh will have to go, but that is a story for another day.

Yesterday the story was the disappearing Bethel, an act Johnson now had performed two weekends in a row.

Johnson was left off the active roster just a week earlier against Miami despite the fact his team had only two healthy veteran receivers, and for reasons Johnson said he did not understand. When informed that was his receiver's position, a perplexed and peeved Belichick responded, "I have a hard time understanding how he could say that. That's all I have to say."

The prevailing wisdom is that Johnson had turned a somewhat reluctant eye to the team's playbook, not picking up all of his responsibilities quickly enough to suit Belichick. Whatever went on between them a week ago, Johnson seemed as concerned about it as he was about Seattle actually covering him on the sprint out play that saved his team, because last Wednesday he said benchings like the one he'd just suffered four days earlier did not motivate him.

"I'm not that kind of player," Johnson said, shocking words indeed coming out of the locker room of the Stepford Sons.

But whatever motivates him, Johnson was moved to get moving yesterday after Brady told him in the huddle, "Just make sure you stay alive."

That convinced Johnson that somehow Brady would get the deep ball to him regardless of what else might be happening. Whether that was Brady's intent or not, that's how things went and that's why the Seahawks went home with their second straight defeat after opening the season 3-0.

"This was a two-man route," Belichick said. "The coverage kind of overplayed the three-man side and then Bethel hit it on the back side. He did what he was supposed to do. Tom read it, laid it out there, and Bethel ran it down.

"He made a great catch. That was a huge play. Changed the field position. Put us in position to run the clock out. That was a huge play. Got us better field position and that was huge."

Huge for the Patriots and huge for Johnson, who emerged from the doghouse this week unchanged, unbothered, and unable to be caught by some strong safety or his free safety counterpart.

"I got my head back in the middle of the field and there I saw Bethel running past the safety and running away from the corner and I laid it up there and he tracked it down," Brady said. "As a quarterback, you see the plays play off your mind a lot and the way the game is going sometimes you have a pretty good feeling [for who will be open]. Not that that always happens, because there [are] plenty of times where I say `Stay alive' and I never get to him, but in this situation I just laid it up there for him and he ran it down.

"I wish I led him less and let him walk into the end zone but I'll take it. I mean what a catch. It was a huge catch and I think it goes to show you this team is more than just one or two guys. Each week we're going to need everyone."

Yesterday, at the tightest of moments, they needed the guy in the doghouse to come out and bite the Seahawks and Johnson did. He ran across the face of their defense, ran away from their safeties as well as cornerback Ken Lucas, who finally dragged him down, and ran the Patriots to safety.

He ran a lot faster than anyone from Seattle expected, including coach Mike Holmgren, who thought Brady's long toss was merely a throwaway to avoid being tackled behind the line.

"I really saw that play differently than the referee, but any way you look at it, it was a great effort by a great athlete," Holmgren said. "But you know what? That's what this team has been able to do. Somebody makes a play. It's a remarkable thing. You tip your hat to them is what you do." Tip your hat to Bethel Johnson, the receiver who, one way or another, disappeared two Sundays in a row. 

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