Stop signs for Patriots
New coach gives it a go on strength of defense
By Nick Cafardo, Globe Staff, 09/01/00
Lawyer Milloy describes his 2000 Patriots this way: ``We have some guys who have been playing together for a while, we have a little bit of wiseness - is that a word? - a little bit of youth.''
The ``together'' (the core): Drew Bledsoe, Terry Glenn, Troy Brown, Milloy, Ty Law, Ted Johnson, Tedy Bruschi, Chad Eaton, Willie McGinest, Chris Slade.
The wise(ness) - Otis Smith, 34, Henry Thomas, 35, Bruce Armstrong, 35, Chris Calloway 32, John Friesz, 33.
The youth: Six rookies, seven rookie free agents, four second-year players. And Milloy should have included a fourth category - break-out players. Guys like Tebucky Jones, Jason Andersen, Tony Simmons, Chris Floyd, Rod Rutledge, Kato Serwanga, and Greg Spires all need to play big roles for the Patriots to succeed.
This is new coach Bill Belichick's roster. The rest is up to him.
The Patriots appear to have bought into Belichick's ways and schemes. That was never a problem for the defense; many players have played for Belichick. In fact, among projected starters, only free safety Jones and defensive tackle Brandon Mitchell have not played for Belichick either in New England in '96 or in Cleveland prior to that.
There are concerns at running back, offensive line, and tight end, and Belichick needs a return to prominence by quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
``I think this team is going to show a lot of heart and I think it's going to be a team that's going to be very physical all over the field,'' said Law. ``We're not going to get pushed around by anyone. I think we showed that against Tampa Bay in the preseason because you can't get any more physical than that team and they had to be wondering what we were doing with them.''
Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis appears more creative than the previous regime as evidenced by Michael Bishop's possible role on third and goal and in red-zone situations. Weis also has more of his receivers in motion and also believes in running the football out of the shotgun, which he was quite successful with in New York with Curtis Martin and Leon Johnson.
The Patriots started their training camp with seven offensive linemen on the sideline with knee injuries. Slowly some of them are making their way back, but some may not retain their starting roles. A silver lining is that Belichick and assistant head coach/offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia have found young linemen who are making progress on a weekly basis - namely rookie right tackle Greg Robinson-Randall, guard/center Andersen, and second-year guard/tackle Derrick Fletcher.
``The versatility we show on the offensive line could be our strength,'' said Belichick.
The offensive line that starts against Tampa Bay Sunday may not resemble the one by midseason, when rookie Adrian Klemm and last year's starting guard, Todd Rucci, return from injuries.
For now, Armstrong (left tackle), Andersen (left guard), Damien Woody (center), Max Lane (right guard), and Robinson-Randall (right tackle) appear to be the starters. Woody and Andersen may still have to swap spots when Bledsoe goes into the shotgun. Poor play at any spot could put veteran tackle Grant Williams, who was signed to a two-year, $2.1 million deal but missed most of camp after knee surgery, into the starting lineup. In an area of the field where there must be some stability, this can't be completely settling to Bledsoe.
``We'll do what's best for the team,'' said Belichick. ``What's worked in our favor is the versatility and flexibility, and whether we'll be able to utilize it with our first group and with our backups. I'm not really sure at this point whether that will be our strength. I'm not sure.''
If he's not, Bledsoe can't be sure.
The running back spot is also a work in progress. The hope is still that rookie J.R. Redmond could eventually win the job, but for now he'll back up Kevin Faulk and play in third-down situations as well as return kicks.
``Little by little I'm starting to feel more comfortable,'' said Redmond. ``I think with the injury, that set me back and I'm starting to show the things that I know I can do.''
Faulk broke a 58-yard run in a 31-21 loss to Tampa Bay last week and has been very steady. The third-round pick out of LSU hasn't been told he's No. 1, but that's obvious following the release of Raymont Harris.
``I know I can do it,'' said Faulk, who must now dispell the notion that a short guy can't carry the full load. ``Now I have to convince everyone else.''
An offensive line, a running game, and a tight end will be of utmost importance in helping Bledsoe restore his confidence. There are signs he lost it last season in the second half. An MVP candidate in the first half of last season (6-2), Bledsoe went 2-6 the rest of the way and spent most of his time flat on his back as the protection around him broke down.
Bledsoe is capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl. In 1996, the Patriots started 0-2 as the offense struggled. But Bledsoe and his running game got cranked up, and the team finished 11-5 and lost to the Packers in the Super Bowl. He may not be mobile, but if protected, Bledsoe can deliver the football as well as any quarterback.
It is a new year with a new coach and a new system. The expectation is that the Patriots will struggle early and get better. That is the trait of the old Parcells teams that Belichick was long a part of.
``I think people have to be patient because it's a new system we're getting used to and we don't have all of our people in place yet,'' said wide receiver Glenn. ``Charlie has a great offense and once we start showing everything, I think people will think a little differently. Right now it's preseason and we're not showing everything. We're still trying to get our offensive line in order and trying to see who's gonna start at running back. I think we have the people in place that could make this work. I know the players are excited about it and pretty soon the fans will see.''
Glenn, of course, is vital to the offense. He'll be on the field with Troy Brown, which the coaches hope will prevent Glenn from being double-teamed.
Obviously, the Patriots don't have the pieces of the '96 team. Ben Coates was in the prime of his career, ditto Curtis Martin and Armstrong. And the younger veterans like Dave Wohlabaugh, Rucci and Lane meshed well with old-timer William Roberts.
The concern on defense is the injury bug that continues to bite middle linebacker Ted Johnson, who missed serious time (17 games the last two years) with tears in both biceps tendons. In this camp, Johnson hasn't gotten on the field because of a hamstring injury. He's a vital part of the Patriots' run-stopping mechanism. Also, Jones will make his first start at free safety while the right corner spot is reclamation project Antonio Langham's to lose.
Many expect the Patriots to have a ``great'' defense and think it will carry the offense. But beware. The Patriots have had a very good defense the past three years under Pete Carroll. In fact, the Patriots allowed 902 points the past three years, fifth lowest in the NFL. Belichick's Jets defense allowed the second fewest points - 862. The defense, then, can't be that much better, so it will have to be the offense that becomes the difference maker.