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Identity crisis on offense?

Lately, Patriots give mixed signals

FOXBOROUGH -- What are they?

It's a simple question, but one that tight end Daniel Graham thinks is important for the Patriots' offense to answer at this point in the season.

"I still think sometimes we're trying to establish that -- some games we have an identity, some games we don't," Graham said yesterday, a day after the team's 17-14 loss to the Jets. "I think we need to go out there and have a consistent identity with ourselves if we want to finish the season the way we want to."

Identity. It's a tricky word in the NFL, because things can change so quickly from week to week. But when Graham looks back on some of his past four seasons with the team, he feels the Patriots' offense had its most success when it established a trademark, a modus operandi that players knew could be counted upon in the face of all those changes.

It wasn't necessarily choosing the running game over the passing game, or vice versa. It was all about the approach once the ball was snapped.

"Everybody knew that when they came to play the Patriots that our offense was physical -- running game, passing game," he said. "That was just us."

Nine games into the current season, and more than four months removed from the start of training camp, the Patriots' offense is still searching for that type of identity.

One sequence in Sunday's loss seemed to highlight the unit's pursuit for that consistent physical approach. It came at the end of the first quarter, with the Patriots advancing the ball to the Jets' 13-yard line on four running plays and one short pass. One of the runs was a 50-yarder by Corey Dillon, who delivered a bruising stiff-arm on Jets cornerback Andre Dyson as he bulldozed up field.

It doesn't get more physical than that.

Then, on first and 10, the team went to a power package, using offensive lineman Russ Hochstein as an extra tight end. The handoff went to running back Laurence Maroney, who burst through the left side of the line for a 6-yard gain. At that point, the Patriots appeared to have their running game cranking, using a straight-ahead style on a slippery, muddy field.

But after an encroachment penalty on New York moved the ball to the 4, setting up second and 1, the Patriots got away from their rock-em-sock-em approach. Maroney was sent around the left end, with the linemen up front attempting to cut defenders. The Jets easily penetrated and Maroney was dropped for a 1-yard loss. On third and 2, a pass was called, but quarterback Tom Brady was sacked and the promising, physical drive ended with a whimper.

"We ran the ball well," said Graham, "but we couldn't finish."

Indeed, the Patriots ended up with 143 rushing yards on 25 carries, numbers that most NFL coaches would covet any Sunday. But a closer inspection reveals that the Patriots were anything but dominant on the ground, as nine of their runs went for 2 yards or less.

Ditto for the previous week against the Colts, when the Patriots totaled 148 rushing yards on 33 carries. But in that game as well, there were nine carries that went for 2 yards or less (not including a Brady 1-yard sneak for a first down).

In each game, the Patriots faced a defense that inched its safeties into the box to support the run, the Colts with Bob Sanders (team-high 11 tackles) and the Jets with Kerry Rhodes (team-high 9 tackles).

Perhaps Patriots coach Bill Belichick had that in mind yesterday when asked if he was a believer in an offense having one calling card, something to specifically rely on when a big play is needed.

"If they take it away from you, I don't know how good that is," he said. "If you have one play, one route, I think defensively you can take those things away. I think the more things you can do better, the better off you'll be. I think that's what good offensive teams are -- balanced. If you're not, it's easier to stop."

The Patriots rank seventh in the NFL in rushing (129.4 yards per game), 13th in passing (215.6), second in first downs (197), seventh in third-down efficiency (41 percent), and 11th in points per game (22.3). Yet Graham still believes the offense can better define itself, especially after the unit's last two performances.

"I think it's important that you establish yourself, what your team is going to be for the whole year," Graham said. "We want to be a physical team out there. We weren't that [Sunday] and it showed.

"Teams that come play the Patriots, they have to know it's not going to be an easy game. We're going to smash-mouth all game."

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