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Desperate times call for old-timers

It remains to be seen how much Junior Seau can help at this point. It remains to be seen how much Junior Seau can help at this point. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / December 6, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Sometimes the pieces fall into place. Other times they fall apart.

When it comes to the Patriots' linebacker corps, it's the latter.

In the last three days, the club re-signed veterans Rosevelt Colvin (Wednesday) and Junior Seau (yesterday), moves that an optimist might say are designed to help the team make a final playoff push, injecting some energy and veteran know-how at a critical time.

But really, this is about survival. Survival, because as the Patriots' coaching staff looked at the depth chart this week, it found not just a hole at linebacker, but a chasm so large that it slapped a pair of iron handcuffs on their preparations.

Usually, the way it works is that coaches meet early in the week to go over the game plan and all contingencies. A question sure to be asked in those meetings is: "If this player is injured, whom would we put there?"

The room must have fallen silent when it came to the linebackers, because as of Tuesday, the Patriots had no fallback plan after a string of injuries. At this point in the season, with a playoff berth still a possibility, it had to be anything but a comforting thought.

So the calls went out to Colvin, then Seau, both of whom have prior knowledge of the team's system, thus shortening the learning curve in an emergency.

"To me, they're here more for their depth," coach Bill Belichick said yesterday. "I'm sure they can contribute, but in the short term, I think you have to take it step by step and see where things are at."

As a team running a 3-4 base defense, the Patriots employ an extra linebacker, which further highlights the need for depth at the position.

The season opened with Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel as starters at outside linebacker, Pierre Woods and third-round draft choice Shawn Crable the top backups. The outside linebacker spot is somewhat equivalent to a defensive end in a 4-3, so it takes a player sturdy, physical, and tough enough to play at the line of scrimmage, but also with athleticism to drop into coverage.

Meanwhile, veteran Tedy Bruschi and first-round draft choice Jerod Mayo were the starters at inside linebacker. Rookie Gary Guyton opened as the top backup, with depth coming from third-year man Eric Alexander. Unlike outside linebackers, inside 'backers play off the line of scrimmage, so they're usually a bit lighter, but also must show the physicality and toughness to run downhill and fill a hole.

The attrition has been staggering.

Of the top eight linebackers, Thomas (forearm), Crable (shin), and Alexander (thigh) have all landed on injured reserve, with Thomas joining the ranks yesterday even though his injury occurred Nov. 9. Although Belichick called it a long shot, the team had been holding out hope that perhaps Thomas would return. Time simply ran out.

Meanwhile, Woods was knocked out of last Sunday's loss to the Steelers with a presumed broken jaw - forcing Guyton to shift from inside to outside - and he hasn't practiced this week. Also, Bruschi's knee was ailing to the point that trainers watched him closely on the field prior to the Steelers game, for which he was a game-time decision.

On top of that, rookie outside linebacker Vince Redd, who was promoted off the practice squad Nov. 22, has been sidelined this week with an ankle injury.

As for where the new reinforcements fit, Colvin is more of an outside linebacker, while Seau plays inside. Naturally, one line of questioning yesterday was how soon they might be able to help. Also, how much can they realistically help?

Seau, who traveled with the team to Seattle yesterday, set the bar low.

"The game is something we respect for so many reasons, and being in football shape, that takes a lot. To say that I'm ready to play after being out of cleats for nine months, I'd be lying to you," Seau said, joking that he was still wiping the wax off his surfboard. "There are times where if I can help, I think we're going to have to manage that. It's going to take a while before I really get into the groove."

A likely scenario is that Colvin and Seau will be eased into the mix as part of a rotation and assigned to a specific sub package, when the Patriots are looking for a better matchup with more speed if the opposition puts a third or fourth receiver on the field.

The Patriots take pride in shifting their defenses each week, and sometimes within the game itself. Sometimes it's a 3-4. Other times it's a 4-3. Sub packages can vary considerably.

Yet the options were limited earlier this week because of a shortage at linebacker. It's one thing when a coach looks at a backup option and sees a player who might not inspire confidence, but it's another thing when there is no option.

That's what ultimately led to the return of Colvin and Seau.

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

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