Patriots' Defense Has a Huge Hole in the Middle

The New England Patriots' defense will be missing a key component next season, one that will likely have a tremendous impact not only on team chemistry, but its ability to make the big play at crucial times in a game. Tedy Bruschi's announcement that he will sit out 2005 casts a bigger cloud of doubt than any other offseason move. PI takes a look at the challenges ahead for the Patriots defense.

PHOTO: Romeo Crennel receives a hug from veterans Tedy Bruschi and Roman Phifer after defeating the Patriots defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. Crennel, Bruschi and Phifer will not be returning to the team in 2005. (Getty Photo)

Patriots' Defense Has a Huge Hole in the Middle
By John MacKenna

It might be nice to see Tedy Bruschi return to the Patriots' defense in 2006. Or it might not.

In the meantime, it might be more painful than many predict watching the New England defense play without Bruschi, who this week made it official that he will not play this season due to the lingering effects of a minor stroke he suffered last February.

The loss of Bruschi for the 2005 season is a terrible blow for the Patriots, who will not be able to replace the many contributions he has made playing at the center of the defense.

This interruption is also a tragedy for Bruschi himself, who at age 31 went from being an invincible athletic champion one day to a vulnerable mortal the next, separated from the trade that made him a hero and a millionaire.

The best news in this sad situation is that Bruschi has it all. He has been a star on a team that won three Super Bowls in four years. He is cherished by teammates, coaches and fans. If this is the end, he is going out a winner, on the heels of back-to-back Super Bowl wins and his first (overdue) selection to the Pro Bowl.

The biggest loss yet

New England fans comprehend Bruschi's value but probably underestimate how serious a blow his loss is to the team. Over three Super Bowl campaigns in which they overcame serious injury problems, the Patriots have come to seem bulletproof.

The best example comes from last season, when the Patriots lost three defensive backs, including both starting cornerbacks, and went on to win it all while starting an undrafted rookie (Randall Gay) at one corner and using WR Troy Brown as a nickel back.

By prevailing under such duress, the Patriots created the impression that even injuries to star players cannot prevent them from winning championships.

What remains unknown is whether they can win without Bruschi. Here are three reasons why the Patriots will struggle in his absence.

1. No one disrupts a game like Bruschi does. Others can play the position for new Defensive Coordinator Eric Mangini, but it is doubtful than anyone else can wreak as much havoc as Bruschi has. When Bruschi yanked the ball from Dominic Rhodes' hands during last year's Divisional Playoff against the Colts — simply took it away while making an otherwise routine tackle — it was a play that, frankly, no one else would have made. Bruschi is creative and opportunistic, and he makes critical interceptions and causes back-breaking forced fumbles. Without him, the Patriots will cause fewer turnovers, and opposing offenses will play with better continuity.

2. Bruschi's local knowledge cannot be replaced. Middle linebacker might be the most important position in Bill Belichick's defense, and Bruschi has been a constant, making every start for the last two seasons. His understanding of the possibilities and responsibilities is invaluable. The players selected to play in Bruschi's place, Chad Brown and Monty Beisel, lack Bruschi's familiarity with the Patriots schemes. They will miss assignments due to indecision and confusion, and opponents will make plays that Bruschi would have thwarted.

3. Depth was a problem before Bruschi was lost. Salary cap restrictions make it hard for a team to be deep across the board. Middle linebacker was a thin position in 2004, with only three players rotating through two positions. One of them, Roman Phifer, retired after the season as the NFL's oldest linebacker. There is talk of Phifer returning, but he is 37 and wouldn't contribute much. The other incumbent, Ted Johnson, is a run-stopping specialist who lacks the speed to take Bruschi's place on passing downs. Johnson also is a bit old at 32. Aside from Phifer, there is no one available who has played the position for so much as a single down. The Patriots picked up free agents Brown and Beisel, and there is talk of sixth-year man Matt Chatham stepping into the middle. It is possible — expected even, in light of New England's success last year with a patchwork defensive secondary — that some combination of those players will do the job well enough for the Patriots to win a third straight Super Bowl. But it won't be easy or automatic.

Don't bet against the Patriots

While it is true that the loss of Bruschi is huge, the Patriots deserve the benefit of the doubt at least until someone else wins a Super Bowl. Belichick and Mangini will probably find a way to win without their star linebacker.

A few things have to happen for the Patriots to win in 2005 without Bruschi. First and foremost, two stalwarts have to emerge at middle linebacker to replace both Bruschi and Phifer.

The top candidate is Beisel, a free agent signed away from the Kansas City Chiefs, where he was mostly a special teams player before getting nine starts in 2004. ESPN's Len Pasquarelli wrote this about Beisel back in April when he joined the Patriots. "While he lacks Bruschi's experience as a starter, Beisel does possess some similar skills to those of the New England standout, and the Patriots certainly have a record for taking players of his ilk and enhancing their production. Beisel is a very active player, moves well in space, and has demonstrated solid range. He possesses good diagnostic skills and an ability to get to the football." It should be noted that star outside linebacker Mike Vrabel also joined the Patriots as a fourth-year free agent.

Chad Brown, signed as a free agent from the Seahawks, also could contribute this year. A three-time Pro Bowl player who spent the last eight years with the Seahawks, Brown possesses the experience and intelligence to grasp the job. He is a good pass rusher who is also experienced at playing in pass coverage. But he is 35 years old and has missed 19 games in the last three years.

Chatham could be another contributor. He has spent five years with New England, so he knows the system. To date, he has been only an outside linebacker and special teams player, but that was exactly Bruschi's resume before he moved inside.

The dark horse is rookie Ryan Claridge. As a fifth-round pick, he is fighting heavy odds, but there is precedent. Dan Koppen was New England's fifth-round pick in 2003, and he became a starter (at center) almost immediately. The Patriots aren't shy about playing rookies as they did last year with Gay and nose tackle Vincent Wilfork. At UNLV, Claridge set team and conference records for forced fumbles.

Not only do the Patriots need to groom a new middle linebacker, they need to compensate with stronger play from the other defensive units, as they did last year when secondary was beset by injuries.

The secondary should hold its own in 2005. Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson are return for a third season together at safety. At cornerback, last year's Super Bowl starters Gay and Asante Samuel are back, and they have lots of help from former Ravens standout Duane Starks, former Patriots starter Tyrone Poole and rookie third-rounder Ellis Hobbs.

The defensive line should also be stable and strong, provided DT Richard Seymour plays. Seymour sat out Mini Camp last month in an apparent protest over his salary, and there is no guarantee that he will get with the program. If Seymour sits out, the line could have trouble of its own, creating a domino effect of defensive chaos.

The outside linebacker corps remains strong, with veterans Willie McGinest, Rosevelt Colvin and Vrabel all on hand. Don't be surprised to see Vrabel sliding inside on occasion.

As for 2006 and beyond, here's hoping that Bruschi makes the right decisions. If his health improves enough to allow a return, he will have to choose between attempting a comeback at age 33 after missing a full season or retiring and resting on his laurels. Would he make the team? If he did, could he possibly improve on his departure as it stands, with three Super Bowl wins in his final four seasons?

Patriots fans should prepare for the possibility that they have seen the last of the great Tedy Bruschi. And that's OK: His legacy needs no further embellishment.


John MacKenna is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider. You can contact him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna" or

You can find the original article on PatriotsInsider.com
URL: http://www.patriots.scout.com

The Patriots Message Boards: http://mb.scout.com/bpatriotsinsider
URL: http://mb.scout.com/bpatriotsinsider


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PHOTO: Romeo Crennel receives a hug from veterans Tedy Bruschi and Roman Phifer after defeating the Patriots defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. Crennel, Bruschi and Phifer will not be returning to the team in 2005. (Getty Photo)

Patriots' Defense Has a Huge Hole in the Middle
By John MacKenna

It might be nice to see Tedy Bruschi return to the Patriots' defense in 2006. Or it might not.

In the meantime, it might be more painful than many predict watching the New England defense play without Bruschi, who this week made it official that he will not play this season due to the lingering effects of a minor stroke he suffered last February.

The loss of Bruschi for the 2005 season is a terrible blow for the Patriots, who will not be able to replace the many contributions he has made playing at the center of the defense.

This interruption is also a tragedy for Bruschi himself, who at age 31 went from being an invincible athletic champion one day to a vulnerable mortal the next, separated from the trade that made him a hero and a millionaire.

The best news in this sad situation is that Bruschi has it all. He has been a star on a team that won three Super Bowls in four years. He is cherished by teammates, coaches and fans. If this is the end, he is going out a winner, on the heels of back-to-back Super Bowl wins and his first (overdue) selection to the Pro Bowl.

The biggest loss yet

New England fans comprehend Bruschi's value but probably underestimate how serious a blow his loss is to the team. Over three Super Bowl campaigns in which they overcame serious injury problems, the Patriots have come to seem bulletproof.

The best example comes from last season, when the Patriots lost three defensive backs, including both starting cornerbacks, and went on to win it all while starting an undrafted rookie (Randall Gay) at one corner and using WR Troy Brown as a nickel back.

By prevailing under such duress, the Patriots created the impression that even injuries to star players cannot prevent them from winning championships.

What remains unknown is whether they can win without Bruschi. Here are three reasons why the Patriots will struggle in his absence.

1. No one disrupts a game like Bruschi does. Others can play the position for new Defensive Coordinator Eric Mangini, but it is doubtful than anyone else can wreak as much havoc as Bruschi has. When Bruschi yanked the ball from Dominic Rhodes' hands during last year's Divisional Playoff against the Colts — simply took it away while making an otherwise routine tackle — it was a play that, frankly, no one else would have made. Bruschi is creative and opportunistic, and he makes critical interceptions and causes back-breaking forced fumbles. Without him, the Patriots will cause fewer turnovers, and opposing offenses will play with better continuity.

2. Bruschi's local knowledge cannot be replaced. Middle linebacker might be the most important position in Bill Belichick's defense, and Bruschi has been a constant, making every start for the last two seasons. His understanding of the possibilities and responsibilities is invaluable. The players selected to play in Bruschi's place, Chad Brown and Monty Beisel, lack Bruschi's familiarity with the Patriots schemes. They will miss assignments due to indecision and confusion, and opponents will make plays that Bruschi would have thwarted.

3. Depth was a problem before Bruschi was lost. Salary cap restrictions make it hard for a team to be deep across the board. Middle linebacker was a thin position in 2004, with only three players rotating through two positions. One of them, Roman Phifer, retired after the season as the NFL's oldest linebacker. There is talk of Phifer returning, but he is 37 and wouldn't contribute much. The other incumbent, Ted Johnson, is a run-stopping specialist who lacks the speed to take Bruschi's place on passing downs. Johnson also is a bit old at 32. Aside from Phifer, there is no one available who has played the position for so much as a single down. The Patriots picked up free agents Brown and Beisel, and there is talk of sixth-year man Matt Chatham stepping into the middle. It is possible — expected even, in light of New England's success last year with a patchwork defensive secondary — that some combination of those players will do the job well enough for the Patriots to win a third straight Super Bowl. But it won't be easy or automatic.

Don't bet against the Patriots

While it is true that the loss of Bruschi is huge, the Patriots deserve the benefit of the doubt at least until someone else wins a Super Bowl. Belichick and Mangini will probably find a way to win without their star linebacker.

A few things have to happen for the Patriots to win in 2005 without Bruschi. First and foremost, two stalwarts have to emerge at middle linebacker to replace both Bruschi and Phifer.

The top candidate is Beisel, a free agent signed away from the Kansas City Chiefs, where he was mostly a special teams player before getting nine starts in 2004. ESPN's Len Pasquarelli wrote this about Beisel back in April when he joined the Patriots. "While he lacks Bruschi's experience as a starter, Beisel does possess some similar skills to those of the New England standout, and the Patriots certainly have a record for taking players of his ilk and enhancing their production. Beisel is a very active player, moves well in space, and has demonstrated solid range. He possesses good diagnostic skills and an ability to get to the football." It should be noted that star outside linebacker Mike Vrabel also joined the Patriots as a fourth-year free agent.

Chad Brown, signed as a free agent from the Seahawks, also could contribute this year. A three-time Pro Bowl player who spent the last eight years with the Seahawks, Brown possesses the experience and intelligence to grasp the job. He is a good pass rusher who is also experienced at playing in pass coverage. But he is 35 years old and has missed 19 games in the last three years.

Chatham could be another contributor. He has spent five years with New England, so he knows the system. To date, he has been only an outside linebacker and special teams player, but that was exactly Bruschi's resume before he moved inside.

The dark horse is rookie Ryan Claridge. As a fifth-round pick, he is fighting heavy odds, but there is precedent. Dan Koppen was New England's fifth-round pick in 2003, and he became a starter (at center) almost immediately. The Patriots aren't shy about playing rookies as they did last year with Gay and nose tackle Vincent Wilfork. At UNLV, Claridge set team and conference records for forced fumbles.

Not only do the Patriots need to groom a new middle linebacker, they need to compensate with stronger play from the other defensive units, as they did last year when secondary was beset by injuries.

The secondary should hold its own in 2005. Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson are return for a third season together at safety. At cornerback, last year's Super Bowl starters Gay and Asante Samuel are back, and they have lots of help from former Ravens standout Duane Starks, former Patriots starter Tyrone Poole and rookie third-rounder Ellis Hobbs.

The defensive line should also be stable and strong, provided DT Richard Seymour plays. Seymour sat out Mini Camp last month in an apparent protest over his salary, and there is no guarantee that he will get with the program. If Seymour sits out, the line could have trouble of its own, creating a domino effect of defensive chaos.

The outside linebacker corps remains strong, with veterans Willie McGinest, Rosevelt Colvin and Vrabel all on hand. Don't be surprised to see Vrabel sliding inside on occasion.

As for 2006 and beyond, here's hoping that Bruschi makes the right decisions. If his health improves enough to allow a return, he will have to choose between attempting a comeback at age 33 after missing a full season or retiring and resting on his laurels. Would he make the team? If he did, could he possibly improve on his departure as it stands, with three Super Bowl wins in his final four seasons?

Patriots fans should prepare for the possibility that they have seen the last of the great Tedy Bruschi. And that's OK: His legacy needs no further embellishment.


John MacKenna is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider. You can contact him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna" or

You can find the original article on PatriotsInsider.com
URL: http://www.patriots.scout.com

The Patriots Message Boards: http://mb.scout.com/bpatriotsinsider
URL: http://mb.scout.com/bpatriotsinsider

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