New England Patriots: Team Report

As training camp convened on July 23, Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick hoped the many new faces on his roster would help alleviate some of the ailments that dragged the Patriots from champions one year to playoff outsiders the next. When it officially ended Aug. 14, Belichick was still searching for some of the anecdotes.

There were, of course, plenty of issues, ranging from the running game both offensively and defensively, to the pass rush, third down, and even problems in the red zone. The influx of new, and in some cases young, talent looks to have helped in a number of areas, most notably the pass rush and on third down where free agents like Rosevelt Colvin, Rodney Harrison, and Tyrone Poole will undoubtedly make a difference. But the running game questions linger even after three and a half weeks of practice and two preseason games.

Specifically, finding a nose tackle to anchor his 3-4 front and a running back to emerge as the clear-cut No. 1 guy were Belichick's obvious goals when summer school kicked off. But neither has happened, leaving a much-improved team, even if only on paper, wondering whether the two biggest problems from a year ago will be solved.

Second year defensive lineman Jarvis Green opened camp atop the depth chart at nose tackle and lost that spot before the first preseason game to a player, Rick Lyle, who was playing defensive end on July 23. That was not only a negative sign for Green, but also for the likes of Ken Kocher, Ethan Kelley, and Dan Klecko - the other nose tackles at camp's start - and the for the overall run defense, which needs a solid nose tackle to occupy blockers in the middle of the defense.

Green, who did start and struggle at Washington in the second preseason game, was an end last season and has no experience on the nose, so it is hardly tragic that he hasn't picked up the position's nuances yet. He is still very much in the mix and may actually benefit from Lyle's presence.

"Jarvis is at a totally different point in his career than Rick," Belichick said. "I think they are different (kinds of) players that just happen to be playing the same position. Their experience and skills are different."

Lyle has never been a true nose tackle either, but he is certainly experienced in Belichick's scheme and familiar with the techniques he is asked to execute. Because of that, Lyle provides Belichick some stability even though the head coach would like Green to eventually emerge as the starter.

"Rick is a versatile player and that is really just part of the value he has to our team," Belichick said. "Some guys are much better at one position than at others. Rick is a guy that has the ability to be functional at several different spots."

But will "functional" be enough to help the 31st ranked run defense from a year ago improve upon that dismal rating? A deep linebacking corps and versatile run-stuffing safeties Lawyer Milloy and Rodney Harrison can certainly help in that department, but it is nearly impossible to account for a weakness in the middle of a 3-4 defense at the spot closest to the ball and the ball carrier.

When it comes to ball carriers, the Patriots are talking about the old committee approach, which in their case is code for "we don't have one".

Coming off a 1,157-yard, 12-touchdown season in 2001, Antowain Smith received a five-year contract and then ran ineffectively in 2002. Belichick complimented Smith's offseason work habits earlier this summer, but the fruits of that labor haven't ripened.

Smith has been unable to seize the lead back job he likely thought was his to lose and now finds himself in a battle with Kevin Faulk, whose physical makeup is more suited to the third-down role he filled so successfully a year ago.

"I think there has been a lot of improvement," quarterback Tom Brady said in reference to the running game. "Not that we didn't run it well last year because we did at different times, but I think it has to be more consistent. In training camp, the backs are running good and I think the offensive line has really improved on its techniques."

To Belichick's credit, he is giving Faulk an opportunity to expand his role because he took advantage of the opportunities presented to him last season when he emerged as the biggest offensive threat on the roster over the final nine weeks of the season. But while that fairness is admirable, the Patriots running game will not excel unless Smith returns to form. He certainly looked better Saturday in Washington, gaining 33 yards on seven rushes, a mildly encouraging sign.

Sure the committee approach has worked in the past for some teams, including most recently the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who used a Warrick Dunn-Mike Alstott combination for several years before swapping out Dunn for Michael Pittman.

But it's one thing to have two effective runners and an entirely different deal to have none. If no one emerges, Belichick will certainly try to get the most out of the duo, trying to take advantage of their contrasting styles, but ultimately the Patriots will have to find a way to get Faulk the ball in space and let the 232 pound Smith try to pound for yards.

The coaching staff has tried to essentially dumb down the running game to make it more proficient in the aspects it does attempt to execute and Belichick seems to be pleased with its progress to this point.

"I am seeing a positive aspect to the running game," he said. "We have less in than we had a year ago at this point and I think our execution is better. I'm certainly not saying it's sensational, but fundamentally we are a better running football team than we were three and a half weeks into training camp last year. And we had more variety last year so we've cut that down a little bit and I think we are doing a little bit better. That's the way it should go."

Patriots Insider Top Stories