Did Patriots Put Their Defense in a Hole?

Where there's smoke, there's fire, at least that's how the old saying goes. The New England Patriots have to be worried that their interior of their rush defense is starting to show signs of smoke this early in the preseason. Did the Patriots blow their opportunity to shore up an aging unit when they had the chance last season? Patriots Insider John MacKenna addresses this question and others about the Pats defense and what may become the primary challenge for the team in 2005.

PHOTO: Patriots Insider John MacKenna and a group of reporters interview Tully Banta-Cain after practice at Patriots training camp in Foxboro Mass.

Did Patriots Put Their Defense in a Hole?
By John MacKenna

With three Super Bowl victories in four years, the New England Patriots have scared away most would-be second guessers. Head Coach Bill Belichick and Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli have built a winner in Foxboro, and it's hard to knock their decision making.

Even the best make mistakes, however, and it looks like the Patriots could pay a price for some of Belichick and Pioli's rare missteps.

The problem area is the interior of the defense: the two middle linebacker positions and nose tackle. Those are arguably the three most critical positions for defending the run, and the team is undermanned there and at risk of being soft against the run in 2005.

In the first two exhibition games, New England has surrendered too many rushing yards (303), and that's a dangerous flaw. Last year, New England held opponents to an average of 98.3 rushing yards per game.

Middle linebacker was a position of strength for the last four years, but the bottom dropped out after Super Bowl XXXIX last February. The team's best player at the position, Tedy Bruschi, suffered a stroke on Feb. 16 and will sit out the 2005 season. Roman Phifer, who played extensively and well in each of the Super Bowl campaigns, was released by the team shortly before his 37th birthday. Ted Johnson announced his retirement in late July, citing a succession of concussions that jeopardized his health.

Bruschi, Johnson and Phifer were the Patriots' middle linebacking crew for the last two years, playing virtually every play at the two positions. Bruschi was an every-down player, while Johnson specialized in defending the run and Phifer played on passing downs.

It could be argued that the sudden loss of all three linebackers could not have been foreseen. True, but misleading. Phifer was the league's oldest linebacker, and Johnson (10 NFL seasons; age 32) and Bruschi (nine seasons; age 31) had long since beaten the odds for NFL linebacker longevity. It was reasonable to assume before Feb. 16 that Bruschi would play in 2005, but not so Johnson, who had suffered enough injuries over the years to miss two or more games in each season from 1998 to 2003.

Given the high mileage that the three middle linebackers had on their tires, the team should have begun preparing for the inevitable transition before the 2004 season, rather than relying exclusively on free agent signings a year later.

Which leads us back to the 2004 NFL draft.

Prior to that draft, there was plenty of talk about the Patriots' need for linebackers, and many draft analysts expressed surprise when New England made its eight choices without selecting even one linebacker.

Had the team used an early pick on a linebacker, that player could have apprenticed to Bruschi, Johnson and Phifer during the 2004 season and then been ready to contribute this year.

Instead the team made some questionable choices, using a first-round pick on a tight end (Benjamin Watson; 32nd overall); a second-round pick on a defensive lineman (Marquise Hill, 63rd) and third- and fourth-round picks on safeties (Guss Scott; 95th, and Dexter Reid, 113th).

Any of those selections might yet prove beneficial if the players develop, but in terms of the team's needs, only the selection of a safety was particularly practical. Regarding the Watson pick, the team already had Daniel Graham at tight end. As for the Hill pick, the Patriots were already stocked on the defensive line, having selected a defensive linemen (Vincent Wilfork) in the prior round-after having drafted defensive linemen in the first round in two of the last three drafts.

Linebackers who the Patriots passed over when selecting Watson include Karlos Dansby (33rd overall; Cardinals), Teddy Lehman (37th, Lions), Daryl Smith (39th, Jaguars) and Dontarrious Thomas (48th, Vikings).

Perhaps Belichick and Pioli did not consider any of those players to be Patriots material, and given the Patriots' solid record in selecting players who fit their system, that would be sufficient explanation for passing them by.

Having passed on the draft route in '04, the Patriots addressed their linebacker shortage this offseason by signing free agents Monty Beisel and Chad Brown. Those were smart signings, and Brown and Beisel might get the job done, even if the results haven't been there in the first two preseason games.

Other pieces of the puzzle are veteran Patriots Mike Vrabel and Matt Chatham, two outside backers who are preparing to play inside.

The team did draft promising linebacker Ryan Claridge in the fifth round this year, but it was too little too late. Claridge went on injured reserve on Aug. 15 with a shoulder injury.

At nose tackle, the team has a solid starter in Wilfork, but one has to wonder what happens if he gets injured. The only reserve at the position is Dan Klecko, who at 275 pounds is 50 pounds lighter than a prototypical nose tackle.

The team had two other nose tackles on the roster, 13-year veteran Keith Traylor and second-year man Ethan Kelley, but waived both.

Most likely a defensive end, Jarvis Green or Ty Warren, would move to nose tackle if Wilfork was injured. It's even possible that Pro Bowl DE Richard Seymour could move to the middle.

If the likes of Bruschi or Johnson were patrolling behind the line, the Patriots probably could skate by without a true nose tackle. But the team is already dealing with change and uncertainty at middle linebacker, so a dropoff in play at nose tackle would further destabilize a shaky situation.

Then again, this is the team that won Super Bowl XXXIX while using an undrafted free agent (Randall Gay) and a converted wide receiver (Troy Brown) in the defensive backfield after both starting cornerbacks were lost for the season.

Belichick and Pioli get the benefit of the doubt, at least until their team stops winning Super Bowls.


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: Patriots Insider John MacKenna and a group of reporters interview Tully Banta-Cain after practice at Patriots training camp in Foxboro Mass.

Did Patriots Put Their Defense in a Hole?
By John MacKenna

With three Super Bowl victories in four years, the New England Patriots have scared away most would-be second guessers. Head Coach Bill Belichick and Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli have built a winner in Foxboro, and it's hard to knock their decision making.

Even the best make mistakes, however, and it looks like the Patriots could pay a price for some of Belichick and Pioli's rare missteps.

The problem area is the interior of the defense: the two middle linebacker positions and nose tackle. Those are arguably the three most critical positions for defending the run, and the team is undermanned there and at risk of being soft against the run in 2005.

In the first two exhibition games, New England has surrendered too many rushing yards (303), and that's a dangerous flaw. Last year, New England held opponents to an average of 98.3 rushing yards per game.

Middle linebacker was a position of strength for the last four years, but the bottom dropped out after Super Bowl XXXIX last February. The team's best player at the position, Tedy Bruschi, suffered a stroke on Feb. 16 and will sit out the 2005 season. Roman Phifer, who played extensively and well in each of the Super Bowl campaigns, was released by the team shortly before his 37th birthday. Ted Johnson announced his retirement in late July, citing a succession of concussions that jeopardized his health.

Bruschi, Johnson and Phifer were the Patriots' middle linebacking crew for the last two years, playing virtually every play at the two positions. Bruschi was an every-down player, while Johnson specialized in defending the run and Phifer played on passing downs.

It could be argued that the sudden loss of all three linebackers could not have been foreseen. True, but misleading. Phifer was the league's oldest linebacker, and Johnson (10 NFL seasons; age 32) and Bruschi (nine seasons; age 31) had long since beaten the odds for NFL linebacker longevity. It was reasonable to assume before Feb. 16 that Bruschi would play in 2005, but not so Johnson, who had suffered enough injuries over the years to miss two or more games in each season from 1998 to 2003.

Given the high mileage that the three middle linebackers had on their tires, the team should have begun preparing for the inevitable transition before the 2004 season, rather than relying exclusively on free agent signings a year later.

Which leads us back to the 2004 NFL draft.

Prior to that draft, there was plenty of talk about the Patriots' need for linebackers, and many draft analysts expressed surprise when New England made its eight choices without selecting even one linebacker.

Had the team used an early pick on a linebacker, that player could have apprenticed to Bruschi, Johnson and Phifer during the 2004 season and then been ready to contribute this year.

Instead the team made some questionable choices, using a first-round pick on a tight end (Benjamin Watson; 32nd overall); a second-round pick on a defensive lineman (Marquise Hill, 63rd) and third- and fourth-round picks on safeties (Guss Scott; 95th, and Dexter Reid, 113th).

Any of those selections might yet prove beneficial if the players develop, but in terms of the team's needs, only the selection of a safety was particularly practical. Regarding the Watson pick, the team already had Daniel Graham at tight end. As for the Hill pick, the Patriots were already stocked on the defensive line, having selected a defensive linemen (Vincent Wilfork) in the prior round-after having drafted defensive linemen in the first round in two of the last three drafts.

Linebackers who the Patriots passed over when selecting Watson include Karlos Dansby (33rd overall; Cardinals), Teddy Lehman (37th, Lions), Daryl Smith (39th, Jaguars) and Dontarrious Thomas (48th, Vikings).

Perhaps Belichick and Pioli did not consider any of those players to be Patriots material, and given the Patriots' solid record in selecting players who fit their system, that would be sufficient explanation for passing them by.

Having passed on the draft route in '04, the Patriots addressed their linebacker shortage this offseason by signing free agents Monty Beisel and Chad Brown. Those were smart signings, and Brown and Beisel might get the job done, even if the results haven't been there in the first two preseason games.

Other pieces of the puzzle are veteran Patriots Mike Vrabel and Matt Chatham, two outside backers who are preparing to play inside.

The team did draft promising linebacker Ryan Claridge in the fifth round this year, but it was too little too late. Claridge went on injured reserve on Aug. 15 with a shoulder injury.

At nose tackle, the team has a solid starter in Wilfork, but one has to wonder what happens if he gets injured. The only reserve at the position is Dan Klecko, who at 275 pounds is 50 pounds lighter than a prototypical nose tackle.

The team had two other nose tackles on the roster, 13-year veteran Keith Traylor and second-year man Ethan Kelley, but waived both.

Most likely a defensive end, Jarvis Green or Ty Warren, would move to nose tackle if Wilfork was injured. It's even possible that Pro Bowl DE Richard Seymour could move to the middle.

If the likes of Bruschi or Johnson were patrolling behind the line, the Patriots probably could skate by without a true nose tackle. But the team is already dealing with change and uncertainty at middle linebacker, so a dropoff in play at nose tackle would further destabilize a shaky situation.

Then again, this is the team that won Super Bowl XXXIX while using an undrafted free agent (Randall Gay) and a converted wide receiver (Troy Brown) in the defensive backfield after both starting cornerbacks were lost for the season.

Belichick and Pioli get the benefit of the doubt, at least until their team stops winning Super Bowls.


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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