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Given a break, they usually take advantage

BILL BELICHICKA long to-do list BILL BELICHICKA long to-do list
By Mike Reiss
September 29, 2008
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Bye usually has meant hello to victories for the Patriots in Bill Belichick's coaching tenure. As players return from their bye weekend and get back to work today at Gillette Stadium - with back-to-back tests at San Francisco and San Diego looming - the question is: Will that continue?

The Patriots are 6-2 following their regular-season bye weekend under Belichick, which includes wins in each of the last five seasons. Four of those victories, in a scheduling quirk, have come over the Bills.

As for any secrets to their success, two former players offered their insights.

"We always focused on a combination of things," recalled linebacker Roman Phifer, who played for the club from 2001-04.

"I think the most important thing was rest, to heal up for guys who were dinged up a little bit. But we also spent a good amount of time making corrections, doing self-evaluation, and cleaning up some things that were giving us problems. I remember using the extra time to focus on the next opponent and it also helped that we were pretty good in the first place. So I think all of those things helped us come back from the bye strongly."

One of Phifer's teammates, guard Joe Andruzzi, believes the Patriots usually emerged from their bye as a better team.

"It rolls right down from the head guy and Belichick knows what he's doing. You also have a core of guys on the team that knew what needed to be done," Andruzzi said. "The first thing you did was try to get as much R&R as possible. Then you come back with the mind-set knowing that it's a long season, but you're hoping to get another bye in there [to start the playoffs]."

Under Belichick, this year marks the Patriots' earliest bye since the 2004 Super Bowl season, when the team was off in the third week of the season. In general, players often say any break coming closer to the eighth or ninth week is best because it more evenly splits the schedule.

Still, Belichick, who had players working in full pads last Wednesday and Thursday before giving them the last three days off, had a long list of items on his to-do list. He said improvements must be made in some of the following areas:

Rushing game - The team's top two backs on the depth chart, Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris, have totaled 45 carries for 147 yards, which is a less-than-stellar 3.26-yard average. While LaMont Jordan has had the majority of his work later in games - with 19 rushes for 90 yards (4.7) - perhaps it's time to see what he can do earlier.

Run defense - The numbers are skewed after the Dolphins debacle, with opponents averaging a whopping 5 yards per carry. The most pressing issue in this area is ensuring that the problems that cropped up against Miami - a team that showed the rest of the NFL one way to hit the stress points of the Patriots' 3-4 alignment - don't return.

Passing game - Quarterback Matt Cassel is averaging 6.2 yards per attempt, in the lower third of the NFL among starting signal-callers, and that indicates the Patriots aren't stretching the field enough. For context, consider that Tom Brady averaged 6.8, 7.7, 7.7, 6.8 and 8.3 yards per pass attempt in each of the last five seasons.

Zone coverage - Too many holes in the defense, as the rush and the coverage too often have fallen out of synch. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 70.5 percent of their passes.

Third-down defense - Opponents are converting 48.6 percent of the time, which entering yesterday's action ranked the Patriots 31st of 32 teams. The club might consider switching up its sub packages and rush schemes to generate more pressure. Rookie outside linebacker Shawn Crable, who has not played in the team's first three games, could provide some help.

Red-zone offense - The Patriots have sustained drives, yet haven't consistently finished them. In 11 trips inside the 20-yard line, they have scored touchdowns just four times.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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