Patriots Team Report
That's why Head Coach Bill Belichick and Vice President of Player Personnel spent the offseason recruiting veteran free agent defenders in a type of call for reinforcements. Their first three free agent signings this past offseason were cornerback Tyrone Poole, safety Rodney Harrison and linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, all of whom will play significant roles in a defense that ranked 23rd overall and 31st against the run while struggling on third down and in the red area. They then used four of their first five draft picks on defenders -- defensive lineman Ty Warren, cornerback Eugene Wilson, defensive lineman Dan Klecko and cornerback Asante Samuel.
Belichick also decided he would spend the offseason and training camp teaching the 3-4 principles as the team's base defense. While he admits that his unit will continue to play multiple fronts, the defensive principles and the run fits will come from the 3-4 system regardless of the personnel on the field.
The reasons for the Patriots defensive struggles last year were many. Starting defensive tackle Steve Martin was blown up so much inside that he was eventually cut, the outside run support was poor and the secondary didn't do its part either. Because teams had such success running the ball, the Patriots defense was left in more unpredictable situations that allowed offenses to dictate the way the game was played.
Belichick singled out his safeties last year, two of which are no longer in town, as a problem in the unit's penchant for allowing the type of big plays that drive him nuts in what is basically a bend-but-don't-break approach. Of the three safeties that played regularly last year, Tebucky Jones and Victor Green are gone and only four-time Pro Bowler Lawyer Milloy remains. Now he will pair up with a player similar in style and stature in Harrison, who has two Pro Bowls of his own to his credit.
Both safeties love to play the run, which should help the overall effectiveness of the defense in that area. But both also love to lay out opposing receivers coming in their area, which could help the intimidation factor at the back of the defense. Newcomer Aric Morris also is a safety that tends to play over aggressively, and if he is called into action, the Patriots won't lose much in terms of a physical presence.
Poole and draft picks Wilson and Samuel along with returnee Leonard Myers will vie for playing time in the Patriots oft-used sub packages, and Belichick believes Wilson could press for significant playing time by midseason, perhaps even as the starter. But Ty Law and the seemingly ageless Otis Smith will open the season in their normal starting roles.
Colvin was the key offseason signing. His ability to play outside linebacker in the 3-4 and provide a threatening edge pass rusher enabled Belichick to change his base defense for this season with confidence. With Colvin, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel outside and Ted Johnson, Tedy Bruschi and Roman Phifer inside, the Patriots have six quality linebackers, all who will play.
Overall, the improvements made in the front seven should help the run defense and Colvin's presence as a dangerous rusher should make players like McGinest and Vrabel more effective on the opposite side. But Belichick hopes to get a significant pass rush all across the line now that Colvin is on board and Richard Seymour has emerged into a legitimate threat.
The big question offensively is in the trenches where Belichick has been unable to find five players who can consistently stay healthy and perform. Adrian Klemm is likely to open the season as the starting right tackle ahead of last year' starter, Kenyatta Jones. Jones underwent two knee surgeries in the offseason, but also must prove he is willing to put forth the effort it takes to be successful in the NFL.
Also, right guard Joe Andruzzi's injury history and offseason microfracture knee surgery leave one wondering about his availability. His practice time will be managed during training as Belichick tries to get him and keep him healthy. Behind Andruzzi, Stephen Neal, Dan Koppen and Bill Conaty will vie for playing time.
The main area the Patriots addressed offensively in the offseason was not the offensive line, but the receiver spot. With no true big-play receiver on the roster, the Patriots went for depth in free agency and a home run hitter in the draft, adding veteran Dedric Ward and rookie speedster Bethel Johnson to a stable of receivers that included star Troy Brown, David Patten, Deion Branch and David Givens. While the Patriots hope Johnson can provide a handful of big plays, the rest of that group will provide quarterback Tom Brady with plenty of viable options. If second-year tight end Daniel Graham progresses as hoped, the Patriots may quickly return to their pass-happy ways of 2002.
CAMP CALENDAR: Camp opens July 23 and closes Aug. 13. The Patriots will hold training camp at Gillette Stadium after holding it at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I., for the past 27 years.
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