Insiders Analysis: A Look At The Units

The outcome of the Patriots game against the New Orleans Saints will shine a light on some of the key concerns New England coach Bill Belichick has been focusing on. Special teams, run defense, the new receivers ability to communicate with Tom Brady and the changes to the offensive line are just some of the larger items to focus on. PI takes a look at the team, and what some of these units need to address in tonight's game.

PHOTO: New England Patriots linebacker and special teams captain Larry Izzo wears a bandana given him to members of the Japanese Media. The symbols mean "Fighting Spirit" (Patriots Insider Photo)

Insiders Analysis: A Look At The Units
By Patriots Insider Staff

The Special Teams

Matt Chatham probably said it best when he spoke to reporters about how head coach Bill Belichick is concerned with special teams. "Generally speaking they're looking at how a guy can help the team all around." Chatham, who's known as one of Belichick's special teams guys, wants to put an end to the notion that some players are only good enough to play on special teams and not be the regular starters.

Chatham, who missed much of last season, is one of a number of players the Patriots are looking for contributions from to help the unit out. Dan Klecko is another. Klecko has been on every return unit duty in camp. The Patriots are unsure of where exactly to fit Klecko, but they know he can find a niche on special teams while they figure the rest out. Belichick however, still thinks special teams need a lot of attention.

"I think our best test is going to be in the kicking game. [The Saints] are really very strong on special teams," Belichick said. "They have excellent specialists with their kickers, their snapper, their returners and they have a lot of really good cover people, guys that are very athletic and have been very productive for them not only this past year, but in the past several years."

If the Patriots can slow down the Saints on special teams it will mark a big improvement when they were ranked near the bottom of the league for that unit, while New Orleans won special teams player of the week award four times in a row.

The Interior Defense

The Run for the Patriots has never really been a concern except for when a couple teams were able to expose some mismatches and find a moderate level of success. Cincinnati last season was able to do that to the team early, yet the Patriots ended the 2004 season with the 5th-best rush defense.

The losses of run stoppers Ted Johnson, Tedy Bruschi and Keith Traylor in the middle of the defense has rasied some questions as to the Patriots ability to control the line of scrimmage. The Saints have arguably one of the best runners in the NFL in Deuce McAllister who can not only run the ball for over 1000 yards per season, but can catch the ball as well.

The Saints with their big offensive line will work to gain field position by handing off to the talented back McAllister who averages 4.4 yards per carry for his career, one of the best in the NFL the last four seasons.

The Patriots will need Wilfork, and his backup Dan Klecko and newcomer Ifo Pili to show that they can give no. 75 a breather without exposing a glaring weakness in the center of the unit.

Fellow newcomers Chad Brown and Monty Beisel will also have to get off of their blocks on the inside. Both linebackers appeared to get tied up in traffic at times in the Bengals game.

Belichick thinks there's room for improvement "At times it looked good. At other times it wasn't as good," he said. " We can correct it. We need to get it straightened out." Straightened out is a good term for it, the last time the Patriots played the Bengals it was a different story all together. "It wasn't like they had 500 yards like it was the last time we played them. But it wasn't perfect either. Don't get me wrong."

The Offensive Line

Offensive line is a concern for the sole reason that the Patriots are working with new players in the mix. Any time there's change in a unit, the need for the newcomers to "gel" with the others is the primary focus. Patriots' rookie Logan Mankins, who stepped in for the departed Joe Andruzzi, is one of those players. Mankins has shown promise at picking up the duties required at LG, but even with his impressive physical skills, he has much to learn.

"I don't think anybody just set the world on fire," Belichick said about the play in Cincinnati. "I think that there were a number of guys that showed some positive plays and that's good. It just comes back, really, to consistency and the ability to do it on a sustained, dependable basis. "

The other side of the ball is set with Stephan Neal and Tom Ashworth who return from last season on the line. Neal has solidified his grip on the RG position, something that wasn't a certainty heading into camp. Ashworth, who has been splitting time with Gorin and the Patriots third-round pick Nick Kaczur, is more of a concern. Having ended his season early with a back injury in 2004, it remains to be seen if he is ready for live action.

The Receivers

Who will catch the ball has been one of the many camp storylines in Foxborough. The Patriots brought in veterans David Terrell and Tim Dwight to shore up a unit that started Kevin Kasper the same week the Patriots signed him off the street in 2004.

With David Givens, Deion Branch and Troy Brown returning, Dwight and Terrell should more then make up for the loss of speedy veteran David Patten who elected to make the jump to Snyderville in the Nation's capital.

The team has some rookies and newly signed veterans they are trying to work into the mix, including Bam Childress, Jason Anderson and Eugene Baker.

Childress has shown moves in camp that earned him the well-deserved adjective "elusive" by reporters describing his style of play. Childress worked out with former Ohio State receiver Joey Galloway in the offseason and appreciates the role veterans play in helping the rookies learn the system. "All of them [fellow Ohio State alums], they talk to us, they give us pointers and stuff," Childress said.

Anderson is working on giving Givens a run for his money as a taller wide-out who can make a big play jump ball. Anderson scored the Patriots final touchdown in Cincinnati on a spin move to the outside last week.

Baker,a 5th-year veteran, is just trying to show he has enough skills and experience to show he deserves a chance at a roster spot at this point. The concern for Baker is he's in a numbers game. There are close to a dozen receivers on the roster, and Baker's chances at being one of the final 5 or 6 are not good.

What about Terrell, Bethel Johnson, PK Sam and Cedric James?

They've all missed significant time at practice with a various assortment of undisclosed injuries. It's likely that if James and Johnson do not show improvement with their injuries, they might not get another chance to fight for their roster spots this season.

The Quarterbacks

The Saints game will be another audition for a Patriots quarterback, this time it's not the rookie Cassel, rather it's 42-year old veteran Doug Flutie. Flutie who has had a decent rapport with the healthy receivers in camp, is looking to unseat primary backup Rohan Davey.

While Tom Brady is slated to get some playing time tonight, expect Flutie to get an extended look with the second unit. Belichick doesn't feel that Flutie has earned the backup position just yet in spite of Davey's continued struggles. "Flutie has never taken a snap for this team and neither did Cassel until [The Cincinnati game]," Belichick said. "It would be hard to nail down anything with a player like Cassel or Flutie that have never even played for this team."

Flutie looks better than Davey in camp, but that means little until he's put into the situation of live game action. With the Saints bringing a talented defensive unit, expect Flutie to have to rely on his scrambling ability and veteran experience to help him out.

Cassel played in Cincinnati having pretty well shown he deserves to stick around for a while. He may get some playing time again with the third-string unit, but probably not until late in the game.

Davey had an opportunity to shake off his rust in Cincinnati, something he didn't do. There's no guarantee he's going to get many more chances to show why he deserves to stick around New England for another year.

 


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