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Patriots Report: Strategy and Personnel

<p>The Patriots have improved in just about every category compared to last season. One must wonder why so many talking heads in the media seem to jump on and off their bandwagon as Colts playoff game approaches.</p> <p>Scout's experts take a look at each unit to give you what you need to know about the Patriots when they face the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. Not an insider yet? <b><a href="" target="_blank">Get the Free Trial.</a></b></p

PHOTO: New England Patriots corner back Randall Gay (21) breaks up a pass intended for Miami Dolphins wide receiver Chris Chambers (84) (AP Stephan Savoia)

Patriots Report: Strategy and Personnel
How the Units Fared in 2004
NFL Scout Staff

QB Tom Brady has had an excellent season, completing 61 percent of his passes (288-for-474) for 3,692 yards with 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions for a career-high 92.6 passer rating. He has spread the ball around with no receiver catching more than David Givens' team-high 56 passes but with six players catching at least 25. Speedy wideout David Patten and tight end Daniel Graham led the club with seven receiving touchdowns apiece. Despite becoming a run-first offense, the Patriots still finished 11th in the NFL in passing yards as Brady adjusted well to the offensive changes. With three seasons as a starter under his belt, Brady took on more play-changing responsibilities to give his team the best chance of success. His ability to get the offense out of a bad play is not measured in statistics and is one of his strengths as a quarterback. The offense also evolved into more of a downfield passing attack and Brady adjusted well. While his completion percentage dipped somewhat, his overall production was better. His ability to slide around in the pocket and get rid of the football limited the amount of sacks he took (26) despite some shaky pass protection at times. Brady's best receiver, Deion Branch, missed seven games with a knee injury, but Givens stepped up in Branch's absence and Patten has provided a solid deep threat. Brady has basically been without security blanket Troy Brown this season since the veteran wideout has spent most of the year playing defense. Second-year man Bethel Johnson has been a disappointment. When Brady doesn't make mistakes, the Patriots typically win. The team's 28-4 record over the last two regular seasons speaks well of the quarterback's performance. He has 13 interceptions in those four losses and 13 in the other 28 wins.

Corey Dillon single-handedly changed the face of the Patriots offense in 2004. His running ability made the Patriots a better play action offense and allowed the passing game to evolve from a dink-and-dunk approach with a lot of horizontal passes to a vertical downfield passing attack. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis' attitude was: why throw it horizontally when he could hand it to Dillon? It's a luxury he did not have with Antowain Smith in the backfield. Dillon ran effectively between the tackles and on the perimeter using a powerful stiff arm to shed tacklers and make yards after contact. He finished with 345 carries for a Patriots single-season record 1,635 yards with a career best 12 rushing touchdowns while leading the Patriots to a 4.1 yards per carry average - the first time since 1985 New England has averaged at least 4 yards per carry as a team. The offensive line did a solid job coming off the ball and providing Dillon with creases through which to run. He hit the holes with authority and either ran through or around tacklers. The short passes that were glorified running plays were gone and the offense opened up because of Dillon. The result was 437 points, the second most in franchise history.

This could be graded on a curve given the personnel the Patriots relied upon for most of the season, but that wouldn't be right. It's amazing that New England went 8-1 over its final nine games despite playing without starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole and also short stints without third and fourth corners Asante Samuel and Randall Gay, who battled nagging injuries. The vulnerable defense found a way to get it done most of the season and still allowed the second fewest points in football (260) despite ranking 17th in the league in pass defense. New England was fortunate to face some offensively challenged clubs over the last couple months and certainly had plenty of trouble with the capable offenses of the Rams, Chiefs and Bengals while breaking down in the fourth quarter of the Dec. 20 Dolphins game when the Pats blew an 11-point lead with four minutes to go. Samuel and Gay have actually played pretty well, but Earthwind Moreland has been a liability while Troy Brown has been predictably exposed as a slot corner even while making some big plays (3 interceptions). Safeties Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson deserve a ton of credit for keeping the unit playing halfway decent. Wilson has had to play some corner, his position in college, and safety. The pass rush has been OK, but not quite as good as 45 sacks indicate. Many of those have come with the Patriots pinning their ears back with a lead and not when the game truly hung in the balance. The unit as a whole allowed 212 passing yards per game and intercepted 20 passes while quarterbacks completed 58.6 percent of passes and posted a 57.9 passer rating. Opponents converted third downs at a 38.8 percent clip.

This is where the defense progressively improved throughout the season. New England allowed 98.3 rushing yards per game, good for sixth best in football. That came despite allowing the Colts and Steelers to rush for more than 200 yards. But Indy's Edgerrin James, Pittsburgh's Duce Staley and San Francisco's Kevan Barlow were the only backs to eclipse the 100-yard mark. The key to the Patriots success was the improvement of defensive end Ty Warren and nose tackles Keith Traylor and Vince Wilfork getting acclimated to the system. The Patriots also prevented big plays on the ground, which is as much a credit to the secondary as it is the front seven. The defense allowed three 20-plus-yard runs on the season and only Barlow had a run longer than 30 when he went for 33 on a fourth quarter carry in the meaningless season finale.

This year has been quite un-Patriots like on special teams. The coverage teams allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown and a punt return for a touchdown while also allowing a 71-yard return to the 1-yard line in Miami. The kickoff coverage team ranked 11th in the AFC, allowing an average drive start of the 29-yard line. The return teams weren't much better. Bethel Johnson did return one kickoff for a touchdown, but his 24.8-yard average was down about 4 yards from last year while the Patriots averaged only 5.8 yards per punt return with a long of 23 while allowing 11.8 yards per return. Josh Miller was better than his net average of 33.7 yards per punt indicates while kicker Adam Vinatieri had the best season of his career, hitting 31 of 33 field goal attempts while also throwing a touchdown pass on a fake. The Patriots longest rush allowed on the season came on a special teams gaffe when Buffalo punter Brian Moorman mishandled a snap and ran 34 yards for a first down.

What else needs to be said about Bill Belichick and his coaching staff? The coaches did a terrific job keeping the team focused and ready in a title defense season, and the players responded with a second straight 14-2 record. Bill Belichick posted a sign that read, "Don't believe the hype" and listed past Super Bowl teams that did not qualify for the playoffs the following season, his 2001 team included. The game plans remained strong and the coaches were able to put the players in position to succeed. New England allowed the second fewest points in football (260) despite playing without its starting cornerbacks. Belichick prepared for injury problems at cornerback by teaching Troy Brown to play the position, and Brown responded with three interceptions - good for second on the team. The offensive approach changed to accommodate the different personnel. The coaching staff proved flexible and willing to go outside the box by using players in a variety of roles. Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Dan Klecko and Brown all played on both sides of the ball while linebacker Don Davis learned the safety position in the preseason before being pressed into duty there. It just seems like Belichick and his coaches are always one step ahead of the competition. Rarely do they go into a game unprepared for what the opponent will throw at them.

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