Checking out the Patriots

Broncos Update takes a close look at Denver's next opponent - the Defending Champion New England Patriots.

Last Sunday's win over the Falcons in Atlanta certainly helped re-establish and solidify New England's rank, despite a rash of injuries and an embarrassingly thorough home loss to the Chargers the week earlier, as one of the elite teams in the NFL.

All at once it was both a confidence builder and panic eraser for the team and its fans. But the 31-28 win over the Michael Vick-less Falcons, New England's second in three weeks against near-lock playoff teams, didn't erase the problems that the back-to-back defending Super Bowl champion will have to overcome on a march toward the postseason and a shot at unprecedented football history.

The challenge is clear. If the Patriots are to go to, let alone win, a third consecutive Super Bowl, they will have to shore up a number of areas that remain huge concerns through five games.

Surprisingly for a Bill Belichick-coached team, most of those areas come on the defensive side of the ball.

As a team that has been led to three out of four Super Bowl titles by its defense in recent years, the first month-plus of 2005 has shown glaring defects on that side of the ball. New England is 23rd in the NFL in total defense and the story gets uglier the deeper you look. The team ranks dead last in red zone defense (73.3 percent with 11 touchdowns allowed in 15 opponents' possessions), 29th in points allowed per game, 31st in interceptions (linebacker Mike Vrabel has the team's lone pick) and 26th in yards allowed per pass play.

The bottom line is the defense hasn't been able to stop the run consistently, hasn't forced turnovers, hasn't pressured the quarterback and has given up big plays at an alarming rate. Last week, even young Falcons backup quarterback Matt Schaub was able to do pretty much what he wanted through the air (18-of-34 for 298 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions).

Blame it on the departure of defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel in the off-season. Blame it on the loss of linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson. Blame it on in-season injuries to Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour and most of the team's cornerbacks. But regardless of where you assign the blame, Belichick knows his defense must starting giving up fewer big plays and making more of its own if the team is going to continue to have a chance win against other good teams.

"We're certainly giving up too many big plays in the passing game," Belichick said as the team began preparations for the Broncos.

"We want to try to cut that down. We need to do a better job on that. We had an opportunity to turn a couple over (against Atlanta) and get our hands on the ball and we weren't able to convert those, unfortunately. There's always going to be work to do in terms of eliminating big plays. We had more than we would like to have. Some of it is tied into the rush, the timing of the rush, when the ball is thrown and the quarterback stands back there and pumps three or four times, that's hard for anybody to cover those routes. We just need better overall team defense."

The good news for now is, as was the case last week in Atlanta, the New England's passing game has shown the potential to carry the team in the early going. Tom Brady is producing like never before and his diverse group of receivers presents a challenge for an opponent. But offense can carry a team only so far, especially if that offense is pass-based. Just ask the team New England has gone through over the last two seasons on the way to the Super Bowl, the Indianapolis Colts.

No, if New England is going to get back to its previously dominating ways the defense is going to have pull it together in the coming months and find a way to start making some plays and stop giving up so many.

PLAYER NOTES
--DL Mike Wright, a versatile undrafted rookie free agent out of Cincinnati who was a surprise roster spot winner out of camp, saw his most significant action of the season against Atlanta. With Richard Seymour out of action and Marquise Hill returning from injury, Wright played on about 10 defensive snaps and finished with two solo tackles.

--QB Tom Brady, coming off one of the most productive games of his career in Sunday's win at Atlanta, continues to lead the AFC in attempts (182), completions (119) and yards (1,522) while recording the third best passer rating (95.1) in the conference.

--QB Doug Flutie has been listed as New England's No. 2 quarterback in each of the first five games, but has yet to take a snap.

--RB Corey Dillon's first 100-yard game of 2005 against the Falcons gave his season numbers a big boost, but the 30-year-old veteran is still averaging a disappointing 3.3 yards per carry with 96 rushes for 329 yards.

--RB Patrick Pass continues to produce in filling in for injured Kevin Faulk as New England's third-down back. Pass scored his first career rushing touchdown, a 6-yard run, in Sunday's win at Atlanta. The versatile back finished the game with six carries for 34 yards (5.7 avg.) and one reception for 6 yards. For the season Pass now has eight carries for 45 yards (5.6 avg.) with one score and 10 catches for 75 yards (7.5 avg.) with two touchdowns.

--WR David Givens continues to improve as the best all-around receiver for the Patriots. Second on the team with 24 catches for 297 yards (12.4 avg.), Givens threw a key block downfield to help spring tight end Daniel Graham on a 45-yard touchdown in the first quarter of last week's win in Atlanta.

--WR Deion Branch led New England with eight receptions against Atlanta, including a 51-yard grab in the first quarter that was one of five completions of more than 30 yards for the Patriots air attack on the afternoon.

--WR Bethel Johnson recorded just his second catch of the year, but made it count. Johnson hauled in a lofting Tom Brady pass down the left sideline in stride on a go route for a 55-yard touchdown. It was the longest reception of the former second-round pick's three-year career.

--TE Benjamin Watson, who missed all but one game as a rookie a year ago with a knee injury, recorded his first career touchdown against Atlanta with a 33-yard grab down the numbers in the third quarter against the Falcons. A talented athlete, Watson (six receptions for 128 yards) is the only New England receiver with more than two receptions who averages more than 20-yards per reception (21.3).

--PK Adam Vinatieri's 29-yard field goal with 17 seconds to play to beat the Falcons was the 19th game-winning kick of his career, a number that leads all active kickers.

--OLB Willie McGinest had his right hand wrapped after the win in Atlanta. The outside linebacker had his ring and pinky fingers wrapped together with an elastic bandage and reportedly has a broken hand. McGinest, in his 12th season, has not missed a game since 2003, although his status for Sunday's game in Denver remains unclear.

--S James Sanders made his professional debut against the Falcons and recorded one solo tackle. With starter Rodney Harrison out for the season with a knee injury and second-year player Guss Scott struggling at times over the last couple weeks, look for the rookie Sanders to get increased opportunities on defense in the coming weeks if he can stay healthy.

--DT Richard Seymour missed Sunday's win in Atlanta. In fact, he didn't even make the trip with his team, but is expected to once again be listed as questionable for the team's trip to Denver this week. Despite missing the game, Seymour continues to lead the New England defense with 36 tackles, while adding two sacks and two passes defensed.

--LBs Monty Beisel and Chad Brown, connected all preseason as the guys expected to replace Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson in the middle of New England's 3-4 defense, are tied for second on the team with 33 tackles through five weeks.



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