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Patriots notebook

Unafraid of the Wildcat

Once burned, Belichick purrs about an attack

Ted Ginn is the only player in NFL history to return two kickoffs more than 100 yards for scores in the same quarter. Ted Ginn is the only player in NFL history to return two kickoffs more than 100 yards for scores in the same quarter. (Chris Trotman/Getty Images
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By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / November 3, 2009

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The Patriots, as the Wildcat formation’s unsuspecting first NFL victim, may always be the strategy’s most infamous mark. But one year later, with the Dolphins returning to New England Sunday for the first time since they unveiled the Wildcat, the Patriots have also proved they can stifle it.

In the team’s second meeting last year, the Dolphins ran eight plays out of the Wildcat. The Patriots, in a 48-28 victory, held them to 25 yards. Despite their taming of the Wildcat, the formation will trouble the Patriots this week even before the game. How much practice time should be devoted to stopping it?

The Dolphins, even discounting the Wildcat and despite a second-year quarterback, run one of the most diverse offenses in the league under coordinator Dan Henning. The Patriots will need to prepare for that while also determining how much practice time to devote to stopping the Wildcat.

“That’s always a tough decision,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. The Dolphins’ use of the Wildcat “varies from game to game. It’s not always used in the same percentages. The better it’s going, the more you’re going to see it. There’s other times where they make you spend time defending it and don’t use it all that much. The most important thing is that we’re sound on it and we’re prepared for it, so if we get it, we at least know how to play it and the different things that come out of it.’’

In their second year using the Wildcat, the Dolphins have had varying success. In Week 5, they gained 110 yards on 16 Wildcat plays against the Jets, which included the majority of their game-winning touchdown drive. On Sunday, the Dolphins gained only 104 total yards, as the Jets shut down the Wildcat.

Still, it must prepared for. Belichick described Miami’s attack as a “very broad offensive system.’’ They use an array of personnel groups and formations, all of which need to be studied.

“We’ll have to be ready for all of those,’’ Belichick said. “We want to be ready to defend [the Wildcat]. But at the same time, we don’t want to commit so much time to it that we don’t do a good job on the other things they do as well. Hopefully we’ll be able to use a little bit of the extra time to get those bases covered. But it’s definitely a preparation problem they present.’’

Since Chad Henne took over for injured starter Chad Pennington during Miami’s Week 4 victory over the Bills, Belichick has seen “basically the same’’ offense used by Henning. Pennington’s intelligence and experience allowed him to make some presnap adjustments that perhaps Henne cannot, but Henning has not dumbed-down his overall attack for Henne, a second-round pick last year.

Belichick believes the Dolphins change their personnel packages and formations on a weekly basis, even with a second-year quarterback.

“There’s a lot of things that we’ll see in the game Sunday that we really can’t prepare for, because they haven’t shown them yet exactly the way they’re going to do them,’’ Belichick said. “There will be something different and creative this week that will be different from the other games that we’ve seen them play. They kind of keep the wheels spinning that way.’’

Threat of Ginn
The Dolphins scored 30 points in their victory Sunday despite the meager 104 yards total offense. The reason was kick returner Ted Ginn, who became the first player in league history to take back two kickoffs more than 100 yards for touchdowns in the same quarter.

Ginn’s speed presents a major challenge. It allows him to take any path on a kickoff return - from side to side, from the middle to the outside, or from the sideline to the middle on a cutback.

“He has the ability, really, to take the ball any place on the field,’’ Belichick said. “He can just outrun just about everybody that we have on our kickoff team. I don’t know that we, or any team in the league, really, has more than one or two people, if that, that can run with Ted Ginn.’’

Ginn’s ability will force the Patriots to emphasize their kick-coverage tackling. On Sunday, former Patriots special teams maven Larry Izzo whiffed on Ginn’s second touchdown, diving past Ginn inside Miami’s 20.

Containing Ginn will also take discipline from the coverage team, the players making sure they stay in their lanes. The gunners (players closest to the sideline) will have to stay outside of Ginn at all times, even if it appears he’s taking the ball up the middle or to the other sideline.

Package, not pattern
Last Sunday in England, the Patriots used a telling substitution pattern at defensive tackle that would have been difficult to imagine before the season. Sixth-round pick Myron Pryor played 27 snaps. Second-round pick Ron Brace, apparently healthy, was inactive for the fourth straight week and did not play for the fifth straight week.

The obvious explanation is that Pryor simply has outperformed Brace. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said it’s not that simple. Pees claimed he is satisfied with the progress of both Pryor and Brace and their roles depend more on who the Patriots are playing and what they are trying to accomplish in a certain package than on their performance.

“Ron is working hard,’’ Pees said of the former Boston College standout. “He’s learning the system. It’s just been a matter of us trying to say who kind of fits the role that we need this week in this particular spot. It may not necessarily have anything to do with whether Ron has not done or has done well. It’s more a fact of, this guy kind of fits what we want there.

“He’s doing a good job. It’s just a matter of, you never know when you might see him. There’s nothing negative there.’’

Brady older, slower
Tom Brady seems hell-bent on making the health of his surgically repaired knee, the dominating storyline entering this year, a moot point. Speaking yesterday morning on WEEI, Brady asserted the health of his knee and his shoulder when asked how long he sees himself playing.

“I feel the best I’ve ever felt,’’ Brady said. “Guys retire at the quarterback position and other positions because they can’t run anymore. That’s what the game comes down to for 90 percent of the players. For a quarterback, it’s not an issue. I was slow to start, and I’m slower now, and I’ll be slower 10 years from now, and so is [Brett ] Favre, and so is Peyton Manning. All these guys, no one can run . . .

“For a quarterback, it’s about throwing the football. Assuming my arm feels great, there’s not a whole lot of other things that are going to keep me wanting to be out there and wanting to play. Five or six years ago, my arm was hurting every day throwing the football. I always used to think, ‘How can I play and always have my arm hurting?’ Now my arm never hurts. I really understand my arm. It’s something every quarterback should learn. I know how many throws I can make. I know how to get in shape during the season, I know how to maintain during the season. Even when a guy like [Albert] Haynesworth falls on my shoulder, that could have been pretty significant. Because my arm is so flexible and loose in a good way, it’s able to withstand those type of things. Hopefully, that’s the way it always is, and if that’s the case, I’ll just keep playing till I’m collecting Social Security.’’

Warren ready to go
Defensive lineman Ty Warren, also speaking on WEEI, indicated he will be able to play Sunday. Warren left the game in London with a right ankle injury and was not at the portions of bye-week practices open to the media. “I’m feeling pretty good about my situation,’’ Warren said. He said he was “the subject of a little friendly fire,’’ a reference to a teammate hitting him . . . A major factor in the Patriots’ 48-28 victory over the Dolphins last year was Miami’s decision to single-cover Randy Moss. He caught eight passes for 125 yards and three touchdowns, and afterward said the coverage insulted him. “I don’t know why coach disrespected me like that,’’ Moss said then about Tony Sparano. “I think they disrespected me today by giving single coverage. If I see single coverage, man-to-man, I think I can beat anybody in this league.’’

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com.

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