The New England Patriots' second straight title defense begins with the Oakland Raiders visiting Gillette Stadium for the NFL's Thursday night season opener.
The Patriots will celebrate their latest world championship by unveiling their Super Bowl XXXIX banner. They will then put 2004 in the rearview mirror as they get set to take on a revamped Raiders team that features an array of offensive weapons capable of exploiting even the most talented defenses.
Is New England one of those defenses? Can it be as good as the unit that won the last two Super Bowls? Can it establish a dominant level of play despite losing a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback, its two starting inside linebackers and its defensive coordinator?
Those questions will start to be answered this week when the Raiders offensive arsenal invades The Razor.
Two of Oakland's weapons came in the offseason with the trade for star wideout Randy Moss and the signing of up-and-coming running back LaMont Jordan, who played behind Curtis Martin with the Jets. With those two, along with holdovers Jerry Porter, Doug Gabriel and tight end Courtney Anderson, quarterback Kerry Collins can work the ball around and use play action to try take his shots vertically to a speedy receiving group.
The Patriots, meanwhile, will try to match up with plenty of new faces on defense, including linebackers Monty Beisel and Chad Brown and cornerback Chad Scott, who because of his size (6-1, 202), could see plenty of Moss.
That might make for a sleepless night because Moss is the best pure receiver in football with his combination of size, athleticism and speed. The Patriots will have to throw multiple coverages at him, hope he doesn't make any huge plays down the field by out-jumping a corner for the ball and try to wear him down where he starts taking some plays off because the coverage dictates that Collins should go elsewhere with the ball.
"He's one of the best receivers in the league," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said.
"There is no question about that. He has all the skills. He is a tall guy with exceptional quickness. He changes direction very well. He can explode out of his cuts, which you usually see more of that from shorter receivers, guys that have a lower center of gravity, that are closer to the ground. But he can really bend his knees, bend his ankles, keep his weight low, and then explode out of those cuts on slant routes, in-cuts and comebacks. He's very good at stop-and-go routes, which again is unusual for player of his size, where he can go, stop and then go again and then accelerate and beat the defender on the second part of the route."
"(He has) excellent hands. (He) can catch the ball away from his body and extend. He is not a body catcher at all. He has great timing on the deep balls, so he can jump high and go up and take the ball at the high point. Moss has a combination of height, long arms, and good timing and jumping ability and excellent hands to go up and get the ball. He's good after the catch. He's very fast. He can get the ball on a lot of under routes and crossing patterns and things like that and outrun linebackers and safeties and pick up extra yards down the sideline. He doesn't really have any real weakness in his game. (He is) a smart guy. (He) can get off the jam. He's very quick on the line of scrimmage. He is a hard guy to jam and hold up. He's pretty good."
Belichick often praises the opponent, but his glorification of Moss was over the top and an indication that he is worried about keeping the talented, but enigmatic, receiver in check. He even excused Moss for taking plays off at times.
"I think Randy Moss is a good competitor," Belichick said. "I think he's really good. There are times when he isn't going full speed. He probably knows that there's no chance that he would get the ball on that play, not based on the route or the play, based on the way that the coverage has deployed itself and therefore where the quarterback is going to be going with the ball. I think there are a lot of players that do that."
While New England will mix things up, it has to commit two defenders to Moss when in man coverage and roll the defense in his direction when in zone. From there, the Pats have to hope that Moss doesn't simply make one of those plays only he can despite strong coverage or hope that Collins either forces balls to a well-covered Moss and makes a critical mistake or goes elsewhere and makes his star receiver a non-factor.
The Patriots will only jam Moss when there is help behind the corner, otherwise, as Belichick pointed out, it's essentially a game of Russian roulette.
"If you're out there covering him and you don't have any help, it would be foolish not to, in some way, back off or respect the vertical part of the passing game. Now, if you're out there playing him and you have another guy playing behind you that is responsible for that, then you can play it a whole lot differently. It really depends on what your responsibility is on the play. But if you have deep field responsibilities and he can threaten it and he is on your side or he is your man, the defender would be a fool not respect that and be in the deep part of the field."
It's not as if that is the only part of the field the Patriots have to respect. Jordan bided his time in New York behind Martin, but could never unseat the future Hall of Fame runner. With Martin still around, the free agent Jordan shopped his talents to a team that would make him its featured back and he landed in Oakland.
Jordan will present the first test for a Patriots defense that lost its three starters in the middle of the 3-4 front - nose tackle Keith Traylor and linebackers Ted Johnson and Tedy Bruschi. He rushed for 1,277 yards in his four-year Jets career but proved to be a versatile inside-outside runner with excellent receiving skills. He showed off his talents this summer in the preseason when he averaged 4 yards per rush and added 12 receptions for 75 yards.
With Jordan out of the backfield, Collins does not feel pressured to take unnecessary shots down the field even though Moss and Porter can get deep.
The Raiders offense will present a formidable opening test for a Patriots defense that struggled against the run and on third down for most of the preseason, with the exception of the all-important third preseason game, which they won 27-3 at Green Bay. The first two preseason opponents - Cincinnati and the Saints - converted third downs at a near 60 percent clip. So the new, and allegedly deep secondary will need to elevate its play against a diverse passing attack.
While Oakland's offseason offensive improvements should certainly make Norv Turner's club more competitive, it was the defensive problems that led to a 5-11 season last year. The Raiders defense, which is coordinated by former Patriots assistant Rob Ryan, ranked among the league's worst last year while allowing 442 points. The struggles prompted a change from a pure 3-4 base scheme to one that will utilize a 4-3 as well.
But he needs a strong season from former Patriots defensive linemen Ted Washington and Bobby Hamilton along with former sack champion Warren Sapp and second-year man Tommy Kelly, who Belichick raved about along with cornerback Charles Woodson.
"Tommy Kelly is one of the best defensive linemen in the league," Belichick said. "He's an outstanding player. They have a lot of good players, but he and (Charles) Woodson are probably about as good as you're going to get at their two respective positions, corner and defensive line. Kelly plays everywhere. He's a little bit like Howie Long in that Howie Long was a guy that they would move along on the front."
The Raiders also hope the addition of former Eagle Derrick Burgess to their defensive line will help a pass rush that mustered just 25 sacks last year.
That group will present a challenge for a decent Patriots front that will feature rookie Logan Mankins making his career debut on the big stage.
A Closer Look - Patriots vs. Raiders
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