New England Patriots Team Notes

If Bill Belichick continues to get his injury-riddled team to play to this level, he will battle for NFL Coach of the Year honors. The Patriots' coaches challenged their team to "meet force with force" against a physical Titans team and they did more than that. They physically dominated Tennessee at the line of scrimmage and executed a superb game plan.

The Patriots spent some time during the week working on their kickoff returns, which Belichick called the "answer team" because they are on the field after the opponent has just scored. The work paid off and helped set up the Patriots' game-winning touchdown.

The offense is beginning to open up at the same time the running game is emerging, but it still needs more success in its downfield passing attack even though offensive coordinator Charlie Weis deserves credit for making the effort to stretch the field. Belichick made the decision to activate Mike Cloud for the game and he was rewarded with a two-touchdown, 73-yard performance. New England continues to get solid play from its reserves and the defensive schemes have helped tremendously.

Even Tennessee's Brad Hopkins commented on the Patriots' approach. "Their starters are starters for a reason, but they win ballgames on schemes. They did all kinds of junk. You have to count (defenders) every time you go to the line of scrimmage. They come up with a lot of exotics."

New England started two rookies - Ty Warren and Eugene Wilson - on defense and received significant contributions from two others - Asante Samuel and Dan Klecko. It's a credit to the coaches that those guys have been able to step in for the injured starters.

Brady protection plan
The pass protection was excellent against a formidable rush line despite playing with rookie Dan Koppen at center and first-time starter Tom Ashworth at right tackle. That group allowed three sacks, but two of them were obvious coverage sacks.

Tom Brady took consistent shots down the field as the Patriots continue to try to open up the offense. He hit one for a 58-yard touchdown to Troy Brown and completed passes of 10 yards or more to six different receivers. His downfield attempts lowered his completions percentage as he hit on only 17-of-31 passes, but the 7 yards per attempt was well above his average. Brady finished with 219 yards passing and a touchdown with no interceptions.

The biggest plus this week was that Brady didn't turn the ball over, although he did fumble once with guard Joe Andruzzi making a huge recovery. Deion Branch led all receivers with five catches for 68 yards while fullback Larry Centers caught four passes for 18 yards, but helped move the chains.

Vintage Smith
This was as dominant as the Patriots have been on the ground in recent memory and it came against a defense that entered the game ranked third in the NFL in run defense, allowing 63.3 yards per game. Antowain Smith pounded away in vintage style rekindling memories of his physical brand of running seen in 2001. He made yards after contact and credited his offensive line with a tremendous performance saying, "I was just falling forward for 4 or 5 yards." He finished with 16 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown before leaving with a shoulder injury.

His replacement, Mike Cloud, provided some lightning behind Smith's thunder, bringing quickness and big-play ability to the running game. He gained 73 yards on seven runs, including a 17-yarder, a 42-yarder and a 15-yard touchdown run. He also added a 1-yard touchdown run, as the Titans defense had no answer for New England in goal line situations. Defensive lineman Dan Klecko had an excellent lead block on Cloud's short scoring run. The Patriots ran 27 times for 161 yards and 6 yards per carry. The three rushing touchdowns were the first by running backs all season. The offensive line, which seems ready to shake the "makeshift" label, had a tremendous afternoon.

Stats don't tell the whole story
Steve McNair shredded the Patriots pass defense for 391 passing yards, but the numbers are slightly misleading. With no running game to speak of, the Titans offense threw its weight behind McNair, who almost carried his team to a win. He was a pedestrian 9-of-21 for 118 yards at the half as the Titans settled for field goals on their first two possessions and led 13-7. Embroiled in a shootout in the second half, McNair showed why he is an MVP candidate, completing 14-of-24 for 273 yards after the break.

He seemed to have much greater success throwing against the Patriots secondary after Pro Bowl corner Ty Law left the game in the third quarter with the ankle injury he suffered two weeks ago. Law returned with 3:14 left in the game and the Patriots clinging to a four-point lead and iced the game with a 65-yard interception return for a touchdown.

New England could have had a big first half in the secondary. Eugene Wilson nearly picked off two early passes and Tyrone Poole also came close to an interception. New England sacked McNair just twice, but had decent pressure, using a combination of 4-3 and 3-4 looks up front.

Almost perfect
Besides a McNair sneak into the end zone on a fourth-and-one play to give the Titans a 27-24 lead late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots rush defense was virtually flawless. After stuffing Eddie George the previous play, The Patriots had to suspect a keeper yet couldn't stop McNair from squeezing across the goal line for his second rushing touchdown of the day. George was limited to 15 carries for 35 yards with 21 of those yards coming on two carries and the other 14 coming on 13 carries.

Rookies Dan Klecko and Ty Warren made their first significant impact of the season while Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Matt Chatham all played well up front. The Titans finished with 27 runs for 70 yards and 2.6 yards per carry and had only eight efficient runs (four yards, a first down or a touchdown).

Coverage and return teams avert disaster
Adam Vinatieri, usually Mr. Automatic, snapped a streak of 33 consecutive made field goals from inside 40 yards when he missed not once, but twice in that range. He had a 34-yarder sail wide left and a 39-yarder stay wide right for his third straight miss dating back to last week against the Redskins. New England also had an 89-yard Troy Brown punt return called back on a questionable block-in-the-back penalty against rookie Asante Samuel. But rookie kick returner Bethel Johnson saved the special teams' day, ripping off 188 return yards on five attempts, including a 71-yarder that set up the Patriots' game-winning touchdown. He also added a 50-yard return. The Patriots' coverage teams did an excellent job and the return game was a difference maker. Vinatieri broke out of his funk later with a 48-yarder in the fourth quarter.

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