Insiders News Notes and Weekly Report

<p>Week 4 Insiders Takes. The Insiders bring you a weekly report card, with observations on who's hurt, who's likely to play, and what the team's current prospects are looking like. Get inside to see what our experts have to say about the Patriots this week.</p>

INSIDERS SLANT

While every team spends its week game planning, the Patriots are one of the few game plan teams. What's that mean? In simple terms, it means they don't simply do what they do. They change what they do weekly based on the opponent and rarely do they employ the same strategy twice against one team.

It's why offensively the Patriots might run a four- and five-wide spread offense one week and a run-heavy plan the next as they did in Weeks 1 and 2 when Corey Dillon ran 15 times and 32 times, respectively. Quarterback Tom Brady, consequently, threw 12 fewer times in the Week 2 win over the Cardinals than he did against the Colts in the opener.

"This isn't really a tricky league like everyone thinks it is," Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said. "Basically you have a philosophy. We happen to be a game-plan team. Everyone knows that we are a game plan team, which is why going into games, what we always try to do is take their personnel and their scheme and try to find ways to attack it. I think that will be standard throughout the entire season. Each team has its own personality."

Weis will have his hands full this week against a tough Bills defense that shut out New England last September in Buffalo. When the two teams met in a re-match, the Patriots ran a spread attack and quarterback Tom Brady threw four first half touchdown passes to four different receivers. Brady's mental capacity as a quarterback is perhaps his biggest strength and it allows the Patriots to make variations to the offense from week to week.

"He's the next closest thing to a coach," Weis said of Brady. "It has gotten to the point where we come in and put in the game plan and by the end of the week, he knows the plan like a coach knows the plan. He has the ball in his hands and it's a good thing to know you have a guy that really understands what we are trying to do. I think the ability to put more responsibility on the quarterback is directly related to his ability to handle those responsibilities."

Figuring how the Patriots will attack a Bills defense that has allowed just 26 points in its two losses is anyone's guess. But if Buffalo has a weakness, it could be its defensive backfield depth, which is why the Patriots tried to use its passing game to create favorable matchups last December when it turned the tables and beat Buffalo by the same 31-0 score by which the Bills won in Week 1 of 2003.

But even before Brady entered the picture, the Patriots changed their approach every week in an effort to attack weak spots.

"We have always been that way," Weis said. "The NFL comes down to two things. Personnel is No. 1 and then it's what they do and what you do. That's what it comes down to. Who are their players? Who are your players? What are their strengths and weaknesses? You have to try to hide your weaknesses and play to your strengths and at the same time attack their weaknesses and avoid their strengths. We have always (approached it) that way where a lot of teams just believe in 'Here is what we do and we are doing it no matter what they do.' That's not the way we play."

That, as much as anything else the Patriots do, makes them difficult to plan for each week because the opponent doesn't know what it will get.


NOTES, QUOTES

The Patriots have done a remarkable job dodging questions about "the streak." That, of course, is the 17-game winning streak they take to Buffalo this week. Since losing last year in Orchard Park by an embarrassing 31-0 count, the Patriots are an amazing 19-1. With a win this week, they will tie six other teams that have won 18 straight games including postseason contests.

But streak talk should heat up this week since the team has the chance to tie a feat last accomplished by the 1997-1998 Broncos. Head Coach Bill Belichick laid the ground work for Buffalo preparation immediately following his team's win in Arizona when he rhetorically answer a question with this question: "What streak?"

Belichick is not about to let the 17 straight wins serve as a distraction with the 18th on the line - never mind that it's the Patriots first division game of 2004 to boot. So don't expect much about the streak this week beyond the staple, "We don't really think about that" comment that has been uttered repeatedly since the season opening win over Indy kept it alive on the heels of last year's 15 straight to end the season.

  • WR Deion Branch has to be considered a long shot to play in Buffalo this week after injuring his knee in Arizona. He moved around with the aid of crutches last week and while the Patriots won't update his playing status until Wednesday at 4 p.m., it would be a surprise if he were listed as anything better than questionable.

  • LB Mike Vrabel took advantage of NFL rules in the Patriots' Week 2 win over Arizona when he called for a second straight timeout as the Cardinals lined up for a field goal after officials had just notified New England it could not call back-to-back timeouts. He emphatically signaled for the timeout anyway, which distracted Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers, who mis-hit the kick from 58 yards. Rackers complained after the play and the NFL acted by making any such maneuver a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty effective immediately. Don't be surprised to see the Patriots try some other tactic or find some other loophole to keep the league's eye on them. It's widely believed that the point of emphasis on defensive illegal contact and the alterations to the injury report rules were made because of the Patriots use of each to their advantage.

  • OT Adrian Klemm has had a tough career since becoming Bill Belichick's first draft pick in New England back in the second round of the 2000 draft. Injuries have plagued him since his arrival, many of the serious nature. They have prevented him from making the kind of progress the Patriots hoped, and it's led to spotty play when he has been healthy. Belichick, though, has not lost confidence in the fifth-year veteran. "He has really matured as a player for us," Belichick said. "He has battled through injuries and kept a good attitude. He has worked hard. He's versatile and smart. He can play guard and tackle and can play on both sides. Overall, our offensive line played fairly well in both games. Now we are going to see a whole different style of defense this week so we will see what that brings."

  • QB Jim Miller continues to progress health-wise and could begin to challenge Rohan Davey for the No. 2 QB job behind Tom Brady. Miller did not participate in training camp because he was still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, but made the active roster and has been throwing more and more since the start of the season. He is virtually pain free throwing the ball, but doesn't know how the shoulder would react to contact, although he says it feels better than it did in 2002 when he played through pain.

  • RB Kevin Faulk will likely be questionable for Buffalo with a knee injury suffered back on Aug. 28 in the preseason game at Carolina. Faulk missed the first two games for personal reasons while back home in Louisiana where his mother died two days before the opener. Faulk wasn't sure if he would have been able to play last week if the Patriots weren't on a bye. If he is able to return, he will spell Corey Dillon and play on third down. The Patriots have been without a third down back in the first two games and Dillon has split the chores with fullback Patrick Pass.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

REPORT CARD AFTER 2 GAMES

PASSING OFFENSE: A-minus
Quarterback Tom Brady has been solid through two games, throwing five touchdown passes and three interceptions, one of which came on a Hail Mary on the final play of the first half in Arizona. He opened the season with an impressive 26-of-38 effort for 335 yards and three scores. He has spread the ball around, completing 41 passes to 10 different receivers and that's been without Kevin Faulk, who finished last year second on the team in receptions with 48. He has used his wideouts, backs and tight ends effectively with Daniel Graham leading the way with three touchdowns. The pass protection has been decent with Brady going down four times in two games. He has done a nice job avoiding pressure with his movement within the pocket and the offense has converted 54 percent of its third down chances thanks to some big throws to extend drives.

RUSHING OFFENSE: A
What a difference Corey Dillon has made. The Patriots new running back has run through some gaping holes, has found small creases and has burst through tacklers and made them miss while averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He ran 15 times for 86 yards in the opener and followed that with a workmanlike 32 carries for 158 yards in the Arizona desert where it was 109 degrees on the field at game time. The offensive line has used a seven-man rotation, and Dillon is not yet familiar with his blockers, but he has run well anyway and has come close to breaking a long run on multiple occasions. He has certainly found a way to turn nothing into something at times with his power and quickness. His longest run is 38 yards, which came against Indy in the opener, but he has six runs of 10 or more yards through two games.

PASS DEFENSE: C-plus
Forget the opponents for a minute. It's time to judge the defense not on whom it's played, but on how it's performed. In the opener, New England slowed Peyton Manning to some degree by limiting him to a 55 percent completion percentage. But it hardly stopped the reigning NFL MVP, who completed 16-of-29 passes for 256 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He was not sacked until Indy's final offensive play when Willie McGinest came clean off the edge and extended a failed field goal try that could have tied the game. Manning's interception was costly as it came on the 1-yard line when Tedy Bruschi saved a touchdown with a diving grab. As much as the unit had its troubles with Manning and the Colts passing game, it virtually dominated Josh McCown and the Cardinals air attack. It sacked McCown five times, intercepted him twice and got its hands on 10 passes while keeping the wraps on rookie wideout Larry Fitzgerald.

RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus
The same grading theory applies here. The Colts controlled New England's defense with a seemingly unstoppable ground attack led by Edgerrin James' 142 yards. The Colts rushed for 202 overall, but had trouble in short-yardage situations until Peyton Manning ran a naked bootleg for 19 yards. It looked as though the struggles might carry over to Arizona when Emmitt Smith's first two runs went for 8 yards apiece, but New England settled down and limited Smith to 15 yards on his last 11 carries in what amounted to a dominant effort. It remains to be seen if the Patriots defense can stop a balanced offense, but fortunately for it, there are very few truly balanced units.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Adam Vinatieri is perfect through two games with five field goals, all from within 43 yards. Punter Josh Miller has been excellent as well, averaging 46.5 yards per punt with a 39.8-yard net average. Opponents have only returned two punts through two games and have averaged 21.9 yards per return on nine kickoff returns. The Patriots fumbled away a punt in the opener when Deion Branch muffed it, but Troy Brown returned to solidify the spot in Week 2 without any errors. He showed he could still elude tacklers when he danced his way to a 22-yard return after catching a punt on his own 10. Explosive kickoff returner Bethel Johnson has been quiet, averaging just 21.7 yard per return on six tries with a long of 34 yards.

COACHING: A-minus
The Patriots have avoided the early-season pratfalls that wait to catch unsuspecting defending champions. The experience of defending the title two years ago seems to have helped the club in that it's maintained a business-like approach rather than act like champions. Bill Belichick has been consistent in his message despite the many accolades that have come his way. He has remained relatively low-key and has made sure that his team knows how it won rather than the fact that it did win. The team continues to follow Belichick's lead with a preparation-minded approach focused on one game rather than on the winning streak that could easily be dominating the press clippings. The Patriots ability to downplay that has kept the distraction to a minimum. That mental approach has been as important as any in-game decision, but it's clear that the Patriots have had two solid game plans despite mixed results. The players definitely buy into what the coaches ask of them and the decision to put more responsibility on Tom Brady's shoulders appears to have paid off in the early going. The biggest in-game "mistake" came at the end of the Colts game when the coaches refused to let Corey Dillon try to run for a first down after picking up five yards on first down with just more than 2:00 to go. Two failed passes later and the Colts had the ball and time to mount a potential game-winning or game-tying drive. The Patriots escaped with the win despite mishandling that situation.


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