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ON FOOTBALL

Individual blame? That doesn't cover it

FOXBOROUGH -- It was never as simple as returning Tedy Bruschi to the lineup, as too many Patriot fans seemed to believe when New England's best linebacker came back from a stroke to make pro sports history two games ago.

Fact of the matter is, it may not be as simple as returning Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour to the lineup, either, if he's finally healthy enough to get out of civilian clothes this Sunday when the Patriots try to right their ship against the Dolphins in what suddenly seems a far more important divisional game than anyone thought it would be a month or so ago.

Seymour has no idea whether he will be ready to play or not, but with all the problems New England's defense has, his return, like Bruschi's, should be expected to do only so much. When you have given up an average of more than 400 yards and 30 points per game the last five games, there's more to it than any one player. There's a system problem, or at least a problem on the part of too many people trying to play the system.

As benched cornerback Duane Starks put it after Monday night's loss to the Colts, ''There's a problem that needs to be fixed and it doesn't lay with one person."

Starks has become the focus of much of Patriot Nation's ire because he has not played up to expectations, but is that because of him or because expectations were too high? When the Patriots traded a third- and a fifth-round choice to the Cardinals March 4 for Starks, they trumped an offer the Ravens had in place to bring Starks back to Baltimore to play nickel back. They had offered a fifth-round pick and thought the deal was done, but it fell through when Rod Graves, the Cardinals' personnel director, informed Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' general manager, that the Patriots were offering more, so what did he want to do?

What he did was pass, because he apparently didn't see Starks as the kind of player the Patriots did. Titans assistant head coach Dave McGinnis no longer does, either. When he was the Cardinals head coach, he paid Starks millions three years ago to come to Arizona as a free agent in hopes he'd anchor the secondary -- only to see Starks suffer not one but two lower leg injuries that McGinnis feels changed him in ways no amount of coaching can repair.

''I'm not sure Duane was the same player after that," said McGinnis from Nashville. ''He was never a physical corner. He doesn't play the position the way they like to play up there. He relied on speed and quickness.

''He was one of the best in the league at it when he was 100 percent. It's been two years since I've been around him, so I can't say for sure if he lost some of that, but he did have two serious injuries to his lower extremities [including a knee injury that cost him the entire 2003 season]. That takes a lot out of a guy who plays the way he did."

If Starks is ill-suited for the physical demands of playing cornerback in New England, as he hinted Monday night, that is not really his fault. He has played seven years in the NFL and reached both the Super Bowl and the Pro Bowl playing off the line of scrimmage, relying on speed and quickness the way Deion Sanders did -- and Sanders would never be accused of being physical. That's how you play when you weigh 174 pounds. To such a guy, jamming is what you do at Birdland or The Blue Note. It's not what you do on the football field.

So anyone who expected to transform him into Ty Law was sadly mistaken, though as Starks pointed out after the Colts shellacked him so thoroughly that he was benched in the second half, the team's defensive problems didn't lie with one person.

The proof came when, with Starks sitting on the bench with arms folded and a scowl on his face, New England's revamped secondary allowed the Colts to score 19 points and throw for 140 yards. That was not much of an improvement over a first half in which they allowed 21 points and 181 passing yards.

The primary difference was not Starks's absence but the fact that Indianapolis led by 21 early in the third quarter and was trying to milk the clock. In fact, the Colts controlled the ball even more in the second half (19:03) than they had in the first (17:38), so the stark reality is that it's not as simple as removing Starks or adding Seymour.

This Sunday, the Patriots have a less formidable problem. They face a one-dimensional Dolphin team that has improved under the leadership of Nick Saban but continues to make the kind of mistakes teams make when they're incomplete. That's why they're 3-5. It's also why they're dangerous to a team like the Patriots, who will be trying to win with offense more than defense against an opponent that has allowed 69 fewer points than New England and relies offensively on the one thing -- running the ball -- that can allow a flawed team to control the clock.

''We beat a couple of good football teams, we beat one that's probably OK, and we had an opportunity at least in three other games to have a chance to finish the game twice and have a chance to have success," said Saban, whose team ran the ball well but still lost, 17-10, to the Atlanta Falcons Sunday.

''If we did the little things right, we could have an opposite record of what we have right now. What we need to do is believe in ourselves in terms of what we have to do to have success and assess where we are and where we could be if we were more consistent . . . and believe that we play another football team this week and will have an opportunity to have success in that game as well if we do the right things often enough."

Primary among them is to use their two-pronged running attack of No. 1 draft choice Ronnie Brown (611 yards, 4.8 yards per carry) and Ricky Williams (141 yards, 3.7 yards per carry in four games) against a Patriot defense ranked 31st in the league overall, (370.9 yards), 30th in points (26.8), 28th against the pass (242 yards), and 27th against the run (128.9 yards). They will try to control the clock the way Buffalo and Indianapolis did to limit the shots Tom Brady gets at their defense, using a short passing game as well as the run to accomplish that.

Everyone knows what is coming when you play Miami, however, so Saban expects to see the Patriots' front seven do what other defenses have done to quarterback Gus Frerotte.

''Teams put seven or eight in the box," Saban said. ''That's why balance is important. But I agree we look like a very good team when 23 [Brown] and 34 [Williams] have the ball . . . [so teams] are saying, 'I dare you to throw it.' "

These days in New England, that kind of dare has become dangerous, and not just because of Duane Starks.

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