FOXBOROUGH -- Yesterday, when describing the Tampa Bay defense, Bill Belichick was almost incredulous at the singular focus of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's squad.
''They substitute very little, probably less than any other team in the league," said the Patriots' coach. ''It doesn't make any difference what the situation is. They just leave those guys out there. It could be third and 50, one second left to go in the game. Other people bring in dime, seven [defensive backs], all that. They just leave the same guys out there. They're either in regular or in nickel. That's it. You could bring in four tight ends, and unless the ball's on the 1-yard line, they just play what they play."
Translation: We're coming. We're not changing. Just try to stop us.
''They don't play a ton of different fronts, which is nice," said Patriots tight end Christian Fauria. ''Or different personnel groups, which is nice also. But that means when they play what they're doing, they play it well. Most people don't get them out of that."
Fauria and his mates will face off against Tampa's cover-2, a defense -- variations have appeared in Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago -- that can leave room for tight ends to exploit the middle of the field. Last Sunday, in Tampa's 20-10 win over Carolina, Panthers tight end Kris Mangum had four catches for 30 yards, the most receptions he's had in a game this season. Two weeks ago, in the Saints' 10-3 loss to the Buccaneers, New Orleans tight end Zach Hilton had four catches for 50 yards. On Nov. 20, Atlanta tight end Alge Crumpler caught five passes for 49 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown, in Tampa's 30-27 victory.
However, the New England tight ends are as roughed up as they've ever been heading into tomorrow's game. Benjamin Watson (head), who had three catches for 35 yards last Sunday, left the 35-7 win over Buffalo -- the team announced he had the wind knocked out of him -- and is questionable for the Tampa Bay game. Watson did better than Daniel Graham (shoulder), who didn't even play against Buffalo or in the 16-3 home win over the New York Jets two weeks ago, and is also questionable for tomorrow. Both were present for the start of practice yesterday.
''The time I was off, I healed up and had time to rest," Graham said. ''That's both a good thing and a bad thing. But I'm happy to be back out and ready to go. I've just been waiting to get better and get back on the field, which is what I wanted to do. I feel I can play."
The Patriots cannot afford a hampered tight end trio against the Tampa defense, the second-ranked unit in the NFL. The Buccaneers allow only 270.8 yards of total offense per game. Ronde Barber, who was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week Wednesday after recording eight tackles, a sack, and an interception in the win over Carolina, became the first cornerback in NFL history to post 20 sacks and 20 interceptions in his career.
Compared with their offensive counterparts, who confuse opponents with different looks, the Tampa defense is vanilla. But with the way the defense has played this season -- linemen surging into the backfield, linebackers filling holes created by the big boys up front, and defensive backs smothering receivers downfield -- trickery isn't a requirement to foil offenses such as New England's.
''They've got a good defensive front," Graham said. ''We've got to account for that. If we execute our plays, we can get open and make good plays."
Belichick noted that for the most part, Tampa features 13 players on defense. Greg Spires and Dewayne White rotate on the line, while Ellis Wyms sometimes comes in for Chris Hovan. During nickel situations, Juran Bolden comes in as a fifth defensive back, prompting the Buccaneers to play either a 4-2 or 3-3 up front.
''They're not an exotic defense," Fauria said. ''They play what they do. They play their front and their coverage and they're really good at it."
Last week, Fauria had two catches for 8 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown. Yesterday, he didn't know whether he and his teammates at tight end would see more downfield plays than blocking assignments. Fauria said that whatever the game plan calls for, he just wants to be involved.
''We'd like to see tight ends make plays all the time," Fauria said. ''The main thing is that we're winning. We're not even close to where we need to be, but it's December and this is when you really start making a push for the playoffs and find out what kind of team you'll be. If I need to stay in and block, it's no big deal for me. I've done it in the past. I've had it on both ends with a lot of passing and a lot of blocking. You fit in where you fit in."