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Belichick plans sound just super

By Greg A. Bedard
September 12, 2011

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For Bill Belichick, it’s championships or nothing.

In his eighth season as an assistant, the Giants won a Super Bowl, and another four years later.

The longest title drought of Belichick’s career followed next, over 11 seasons, as he was a head coach of the Browns, an assistant for the Patriots and Jets, then assumed command in New England for the 2000 season.

Belichick won a title in his second, fourth, and fifth seasons.

As Belichick and the Patriots embark on the 2011 season tonight in Miami, his and the team’s title-less “drought’’ is now at six years.

For a franchise that struggled to become relevant in the 31 years before Belichick arrived, that’s a ripple in the harbor.

But for Belichick, for whom football is life, entering a seventh season without a Super Bowl title must feel like an eternity.

And the team that he will put on the field tonight in Miami represents a good shot to end the waiting.

After an inconsistent start, the Patriots caught fire down the stretch last season and ended 14-2.

But for the second straight season, the Patriots opened the playoffs with a loss at home, 28-21, to the hated Jets.

For the Patriots, a few weaknesses emerged. They’re the kind that can be covered up against the league’s pretenders, but true title contenders can expose them.

Armed with an abundance of time because of the lockout, Belichick zeroed in on those deficiencies and went about shoring them up.

The biggest failures against the Jets did not come on defense, but offensively.

The Patriots were 3 of 13 (23.1 percent) on third downs entering the fourth quarter when the game was already almost out of reach. The Patriots converted 48.2 percent in the regular season.

As great a quarterback as Tom Brady is - and he was the league’s first unanimous MVP - he played poorly against the Jets. He hadn’t been pressured yet when he overthrew a screen pass to BenJarvus Green-Ellis and was intercepted for the first time in 339 attempts.

The Jets missed the subsequent field goal, but the tone was set: Brady was not Superman. And he didn’t put his cape on again.

Brady never truly saw the game clearly the rest of the way. Of the 11 total quarterback pressures the Jets generated (around the season average of 10.2), four were at least partially Brady’s responsibility, including two of the sacks. When he wasn’t recognizing where a free man was coming from, he was ducking out of pressure and into sacks or hurries where there wasn’t much.

It was very un-Brady-like, but not all of it was his fault. The Jets’ multiple looks were exceedingly well-executed, and there were communal offensive shortages.

Alge Crumpler’s dropped touchdown pass failed to deliver the kind of early lead that ratcheted the self-imposed pressure on the opponent to keep pace with Brady.

The Jets played coverage more often than not, but the Patriots failed to adjust and run the ball more until the second half.

The offensive line was not stellar against the Jets, but Brady had faced just as much if not more pressure against the Dolphins (first matchup), Chargers, Steelers, Lions, and Jets (second) and played better.

The difference was the Jets had players in the secondary who could thwart Brady’s weapons.

Enter Chad Ochocinco, who gives Brady another weapon to stretch the field horizontally.

Brady’s struggles do not absolve the offensive line, and Belichick rightfully moved to tighten up that unit.

Right guard Dan Connolly surrendered two sacks and a hurry against the Jets. He likely will be replaced by former All-Pro guard Brian Waters. Waters is an upgrade over any of the Patriots’ other options. He will bring a physical and nasty presence to the right side to balance Logan Mankins on the left.

Waters’s presence also should help right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who after a terrific rookie year gave up twice as many pressures last season.

Waters, despite much more being said and written about Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth, will be the most crucial of any of the Patriots acquisitions.

The transition on defense also has been much talked about, and we still won’t know Belichick’s exact plans until his Patriots hit the field tonight.

But tired of not being able to get off the field on third downs, Belichick has revamped the scheme.

The 3-4 read-and-react scheme has been read its last rites. It worked wonders for years and even today against middling quarterbacks, but the talent in the shotgun today is too good to hope a QB doesn’t see a defender underneath in coverage, or is inaccurate enough to get the defense off the field.

These Patriots will be coming after the opponent to affect the quarterback. The optimal way to win defensively in today’s NFL is to be able to rush with just four and push the pocket from the interior. The outside rushers have almost all been turned over. Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, and Mark Anderson have been added to Mike Wright and Jermaine Cunningham.

Haynesworth should team with Vince Wilfork to give the Patriots the kind of interior presence that hasn’t been seen since Tim Bowens and Daryl Gardener were at their peak for the Dolphins. The Patriots should be better against the pass and run simply by the immense existence of Wilfork and Haynesworth.

The Patriots also will send their two rush linebackers, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, on more delayed blitzes keyed on if the running back stays into block.

The move of Mayo from inside to weakside will be significant. As great as he has been in the middle of the Patriots’ defense, his vast array of athletic abilities will be better utilized in the new scheme.

Last year, even when the Patriots generated pressure, it failed to produce because the coverage in the back end was soft. With the return of Leigh Bodden from injury, the Patriots should be playing more man and pressure coverages, and that will enable the pass rush to be more effective.

If these plans go as they have been laid out, the Patriots should be more effective on both sides of the ball when it counts: in the postseason.

But that’s not to say there aren’t problem areas.

The front four is old. At safety, Patrick Chung, a burgeoning star, has to stay healthy for an entire season, and a running mate must prove capable. If not, then the Patriots will be forced to drop back into more zones and get picked apart. Left tackle Matt Light needs to have a resurgence. The line must be better against teams that stunt and fail to line up before the snap. And New England still doesn’t have a stretch-the-field threat. Will another horizontal receiver be enough to offset the coverages?

Belichick sees the end result better than most. That’s why he has five Super Bowl rings and is one of the greatest NFL coaches ever.

If things go according to Belichick’s well-laid plans, his dry spell should end this season.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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