On Balance, the Pats Will Score
By John MacKenna, site contributor
The New England Patriots have climbed to the top of the NFL pile as a defense-first team. Quarterback Tom Brady has two Super Bowl MVP trophies, but it is the stifling defense of Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel that is primarily responsible for two title runs in three years.
Times change, however, and the Patriots are poised to launch a new era of offensive dominance based on balance and a wealth of emerging young talent. Expect the Patriots to score five or more offensive touchdowns in a few games this year, perhaps as soon as Oct. 3 in Buffalo.
The days when defenses could key on Offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis's short passing attack ended last Sunday in Arizona when new running back Corey Dillon ran for 158 yards, serving notice that the Patriots at last have a running game that they can count on every week.
"At this point, we have some balance and hopefully we can keep it," said Head Coach Bill Belichick. Indeed, Dillon's presence will tempt defenses to cheat into the box, exposing thin areas in coverage that Brady can exploit.
The first beneficiary of Dillon's dangerous presence was tight end Daniel Graham, who scored two touchdowns in the first half against Arizona. In his third season, Graham is starting to look like the first-rounder he is. "He had a really good offseason," said Belichick. "His confidence level is good. He took a lot of reps in the spring camps and got off to a good start in training camp. He has taken a lot of snaps, and I think that he has developed a confidence in his own play. He and Tom [Brady] have been able to work together because they have both been on the field every day. I think there are a lot of signs there for improvement, and all of those elements weren't always completely in place previously."
Wide receiver David Givens also showed what he can do in the Arizona game, grabbing six passes for 118 yards. Brady this week discussed Givens' emergence. "Now that he's picked up more of the passing game and learned more about the offense and what we're trying to do here, he's really established a role."
Graham and Givens alone are trouble enough, but the Patriots have plenty more receiving threats. Third-year wideout Deion Branch was quiet last week, but only because he was forced from the game at the end of the first half. He had seven receptions for 86 yards in Week One, and he was very strong last postseason with 15 receptions for 163 yards in the postseason, including 10 for 143 yards in the Super Bowl.
Wideout David Patten was also forced from the Arizona game, but he already has 125 receiving yards on the season. And he appears to be back at full strength after missing most of the '03 campaign with injuries. In '02, he caught 61 for 824 yards.
Veteran Troy Brown is also awaiting his turn to make some noise. Brady sent a bomb his way on the last passing play of the Arizona game but overthrew it. Brown will be lucky to catch 40 passes this year, but defenses still owe him full respect.
Graham, Givens, Branch, Patten and Brown are trouble enough for any secondary, but the Patriots have even more. Second-year wideout Bethel Johnson has only 17 receptions in his young career, but his outstanding speed makes him a deep threat that Weis can use to spread the defense and create more space underneath. If Johnson is on the field with, say Branch and Givens, one of the three will be covered by a safety or nickel back, and that's a dangerous situation.
Rookie tight end Benjamin Watson could blossom any time. He is big (6'3", 253) like Graham with outstanding speed and quickness. Brady already likes to go to Graham, and Watson could become another choice target.
In Brady, the Patriots have a QB who knows how to get the most production from a receiving corps whose strength is its depth. He is the master of picking on a secondary's weak links. Weis says Brady knows how to make the most of all the options the offense presents. "He has the ball in his hands, and that is a good thing, to know you have a guy that really understands what we are trying to do."
The Bills have surrendered only 13 points in each of their first two games, but the Patriots could torch them for plenty more. The Bills were able to contain the Raiders last Sunday and limit Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon to 209 yards passing, but then the Raiders didn't pose much of a run threat with Tyrone Wheatley and Amos Zereoue, who combined for just 45 yards. The Jaguars couldn't do much either with the Bills' defense in Week One, rushing for only 83 yards and passing for 142. But then Jags QB Byron Leftwich is no Tom Brady.
The Bills defense can shut down the likes of the Jaguars or the Raiders because it is fundamentally strong up front and in the secondary. Bills' defensive tackles Sam Adams and Pat Williams might shut off the middle against New England, but Dillon did most of his damage outside tackle against the Cardinals, and he could hit the Bills hard there too. The Bills harassed Gannon by sending Linebacker London Fletcher on the blitz, but Fletcher should have his hands full with Dillon and Graham.
The Bills' weakness is lack of depth in the secondary, and Brady should have an easy time finding openings. Bills cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Nate Clements provided enough coverage against the Raiders to end Jerry's Rice streak of 274 consecutive games with a reception, but they can't cover four or five New England receivers by themselves. Receivers like Graham, Watson, Troy Brown and even Givens will find themselves matched against safeties and linebackers. Bills free safety Izell Reese has decent cover skills, but strong safety Coy Wire, filling in for the injured Lawyer Milloy, could get abused by Brady.
The Bills' offense, meanwhile, is a rather meek affair. Bledsoe has passed for only 351 yards in the first two games. Travis Henry has rushed for only 142 yards and no TDs, and Willis McGahee is barely ahead of last year's pace. The game will be a blowout if the Patriots manage even three touchdowns.
Should the Bills keep the Patriots' in check Oct. 3, the reprieve could be temporary because the Patriots offense will strengthen as the season unfolds. Before Buffalo travels to Foxborough Nov. 14, the Patriots' offensive line should stabilize as Belichick abandons the rotation he's using now in favor of a set lineup. Also, look for Watson and Johnson to emerge as receiving threats. One last thing: The Patriots have been playing without running back Kevin Faulk, who last year was second on the team in receptions with 48.
Let the blowouts begin.
John Will be a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums
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