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JACKIE MACMULLAN

On hook for a fishy start

FOXBOROUGH -- The heat is on in Miami, and nobody is feeling it more than Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who has been sacked a staggering 21 times in four games, including six times last Sunday in a loss to the lowly Houston Texans.

For those of you scoring at home, Miami's offensive line gave up just 26 sacks for the entire season in 2005. To say the Dolphins' offensive line, which has used six players at right guard, is a ``work in progress" is like saying the Big Dig went a little over budget.

Culpepper is recovering from major knee surgery, and throwing to a new group of receivers who have not yet mastered the complex offensive sets that have been drawn up for them.

So here's a stunner for you: New England will try to pressure the quarterback Sunday.

``I love to see quarterbacks on the ground," said linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. ``That's always a good idea [for the defense]. Quarterbacks are the heads of state. They touch the ball on almost every play. If you can get to the quarterback, get in his head and shake him up a little bit, then you might affect the flow of the game later on."

The Patriots' defense came away from their win over the Bengals convinced their close proximity to quarterback Carson Palmer throughout the game, culminated by Jarvis Green's three sacks in the fourth quarter, had a hand in causing favored Cincinnati to unravel down the stretch.

``You can tell [a sack] affects the quarterback in some ways," offered Green yesterday. ``If you get him on the first series, he and his team are looking at a second and 12, or a second and 15, and it can be difficult to climb your way back to a first down. It forces you to make decisions you might not have wanted to make at that point.

``The [number of sacks] probably starts to weigh on you. You think of a guy like David Carr in Houston, and it's got to be tough. It can't be fun to run around all day trying to find some daylight downfield."

Carr was sacked an NFL-record 76 times during his rookie campaign with the Texans in 2002. Now in his fifth season, he is withstanding a career average of 52 sacks a year. Culpepper is on course to absorb an even worse beating than that, but his coach, Nick Saban, believes as his quarterback learns to adjust to his lessened athletic skills, his decisions in the pocket will reduce some of the pressure.

``[Culpepper] was a very elusive, very athletic guy and he was used to depending on that," explained Saban. ``It's almost like [Yankees pitcher] Randy Johnson, who used to throw it 99 miles per hour and now throws 94. He's still a pretty good pitcher, but he has to throw a bit different, and I think Daunte has to play quarterback a little bit different."

Culpepper, acquired from Minnesota for a second-round pick, reported to camp as the only quarterback in NFL history with four seasons of 3,000 yards passing and 400 yards rushing. His career completion rate of 64.2 percent is a nice, tidy statistic, but Culpepper's 2005 season was hardly that neat.

He began last season submitting 0 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. In the Vikings' seventh game, he blew out his right knee and was lost for the year. The Vikings, who were 2-5 with him in the lineup, won seven of their final nine games without him.

And we haven't even discussed his role in the now infamous ``Love Boat" scandal that rocked Minnesota's football world. The team's antics on Lake Minnetonka last October provided enough punch lines for Leno and Letterman to make it through sweeps. Culpepper, who eventually had all charges dropped against him, recognized he needed a change of scenery and asked for a trade.

It would be an understatement to say that Culpepper had a few things to prove this season. The Dolphins were touted as not only division contenders but Super Bowl hopefuls before stumbling out of the gate at 1-3. Culpepper, his coach, and his offensive line are under siege in their own town. To add to their woes, starting left guard Jeno James missed practice yesterday with a knee injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday .

Culpepper acknowledged yesterday his recovery is still a work in progress.

``I'm doing a lot of drills trying to make sure that I can step right and step left real fast and do what I need to do and get the ball out of my hands," he said. ``Our goal in the training room has been for me to get stronger as time goes on."

New England's defense, which has recorded 11 sacks for a total of 80 yards lost, expects Saban, whose close ties to Belichick are well documented, to throw some wrinkles into his offensive sets.

``It's quite possible they could change their game plan," cautioned Rodney Harrison. ``They might go to quick, intermediate routes. They might try to set up on some early reads."

In fact, that is precisely what the Patriots are expecting the Dolphins to do, to shorten the passing game and zero in on tight end Randy McMichael as their target. McMichael, who caught 60 passes for 582 yards and 5 touchdowns last season, is one of the top tight ends in the game.

Coach Bill Belichick reminded the assembled masses of that yesterday. Although it is customary for him to supply the obligatory plaudits when discussing the opposing coach, it is obvious that his respect for Saban is sincere and heartfelt.

Naturally, this kind of game has Belichick on high alert. The Patriots are expected to win in a romp, and the coach was in no mood to advance that theory.

Asked about Saban yesterday, Belichick offered, ``He can do whatever he needs to do and he's not afraid to do any of it. That's why he always has good teams. That's why he's a good football coach, because he has a good way of reading his team and knowing what it takes.

``Last year [Miami was] sitting here at 3-7 . Everybody was shoveling dirt on them, too. They come back and win the next six games, after they lost to Cleveland up there. That was it. That was the end of their season. They couldn't beat Cleveland. They come back and win the next six games, including us.

``You can never count [out] Nick Saban. You can never count the Miami Dolphins out of anything."

It is interesting to note that in his own impassioned defense of Saban, the Patriots coach broke one of his own cardinal rules, which is to always look forward, never back.

Daunte Culpepper best heed that advice. He's been hearing footsteps since he stepped on the football field. If New England has its way, he'll be hearing them in stereo again come Sunday.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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