Patriots Report: Stopping The Run Is a Must

The New England Patriots are two thirds of the way through the most rigorous six-game stretch since Bill Belichick became head coach in 2000. So far, the Patriots have posted a 2-2 record and look disturbingly inconsistent. New England, known for its toughness and ability to overcome adversity, is increasingly being labeled as a team without an identity... Dave Fletcher previews the game against the Atlanta Falcons, a game the Patriots need to win.

PHOTO: Atlanta Falcons running back Warrick Dunn runs against the Jacksonville Jaguars Aug 25, 2005(AP Photo/Phil Coale)

Patriots Report: Stopping The Run Is Paramount
By Dave Fletcher

The Patriots are two thirds of the way through the most rigorous six-game stretch since Bill Belichick became head coach in 2000. So far, the Patriots have posted a 2-2 record and look disturbingly inconsistent. New England, known for its toughness and ability to overcome adversity, is increasingly being labeled as a team without an identity.

Surprisingly, Belichick agrees with the critics. “We're a little bit of a team in transition,” said the coach. “There are a number of transitory things going on or that have gone on within the first four weeks of the season and so that's put things in a little bit of a state of flux. They weren't what they were a month ago. Some of them weren't what they were two weeks ago.”

Indeed, the Patriots were beaten down in the second half by a more physical Chargers team just a week after showing tremendous resiliency on the road against the Steelers. The injuries to key players that have piled up on the Pats looked to take their toll especially on a worn down defense that was bulldozed by San Diego’s running attack for 180 yards.

Whether the Patriots are amidst a transition into a soft team that can be pushed around will become even clearer in Atlanta against a Falcons team whose ground game is statistically more daunting than San Diego’s.

Atlanta leads the NFL with 209 rushing yards per game, 50 yards better than the No. 2-ranked Chargers. Theoretically, things should only get much worse for the reeling New England defense. Injuries can certainly be blamed for the struggles against the Chargers, but a simple return to fundamentals is the best medicine for what ails this defense.

Mistackles ruled the day for the Patriots last week, especially in the secondary and in the linebacker unit.

“Missed tackles are kind of like dropped passes,” said Belichick. “They come in a lot of different categories. There are some passes that are dropped that would be really an outstanding catch, but nevertheless they were missed. Then there are other passes that are right in the guy's hand that you would like to think most of us in this room could catch.”

There is no doubt that whiffing on a take down against Warrick Dunn (5.6 ypa), Michael Vick (7.3 ypa) or T.J. Duckett on Sunday will bear similar results to last week. If Dunn and Vick are allowed to breeze through the second tier linebackers — particularly Chad Brown and Monty Beisel — it will be another long day for the Patriots.

With Dunn and Vick’s speed, big plays are always a possibility if they get up to full steam before reaching the safeties. Vick adds the extra dimension with his ability to throw the ball on the run, which the Falcons love to play off of in their rushing attack.

“They run a lot of play action passing to go with their running game (and) it complements it well,” said Belichick. “(They call) bootlegs in the pocket play action as well as out-of-pocket play action. He causes you a lot of problems. He makes plays with his feet. He makes plays with his arm. They give him the opportunity to offset the run defense by the complementary patterns that they run and also (by) moving him around in the pocket.”

Note the coach’s frequent use of the word “pocket.” That’s the buzz word for the week as the Patriots prepare to contain Vick. Jim Mora Jr. is still in the process of converting his fleet-of-foot superstar into an effective pocket passer in the west coast offense. So far, Vick’s accuracy and decision making have been mediocre. He frequently bails himself out of negative plays and sacks with his rushing ability (32 rushes, 233 yards), but he is also prone to bad throws and turnovers if he is kept between the tackles.

Among quarterbacks who have played in four games this season, Vick’s 44 completions rank him 31st in the NFL. Exactly half of those receptions are to wideout Michael Jenkins and tight end Alge Crumpler.

Crumpler figures to give the Patriots the most problems based on the lack of success New England had stopping the similarly skilled Antonio Gates last week. When asked what the difference between Crumpler and Gates is, Belichick said Crumpler is “bigger and more physical than Gates.” Once again, the development of Rodney Harrison’s replacement Guss Scott will be front and center as the Falcons will look to exploit his inexperience.

Offensively, the Patriots are coming off a similarly inept second half performance. The offensive line has yet to give Corey Dillon enough space to silence the grumbling that he may be getting old. The Falcons have allowed 114 rushing yards per game so far in 2005, so there is reason to believe the Pats can be successful if they can win the battle in the trenches and get a blocker on game-breaking linebacker Keith Brooking.

Yet as much as the Patriots would like to run the football down Atlanta’s throats, Belichick doesn’t sound like someone who is too confident in his linemen’s ability to run block.

“[You could] say, 'Okay, we'll pound them.' Well, who are you going to pound? There are about eight guys you are trying to pound on. They're all fast. They're quick. They're in the gaps. They're up field. It's nice to say, 'Well, we are going to pound them.' But still, it's a one-on-one blocking game. You have to block them. They're hard to block.”

Despite rumors that they would reshuffle the lineup, New England kept rookies Logan Mankins and Nick Kaczur on the left side of the offensive line against San Diego. The unit yielded just one sack, but the Patriots were forced to leave tight ends Ben Watson and Daniel Graham in as safety valves on blitzes, negating their play making ability in the passing game.

If the tight ends are needed to pass block again this week, Deion Branch needs to find a way to get open. Brady’s favorite target logged just one catch for six yards against frequent double teams last Sunday. The Falcons have allowed only 187 passing yards per game this year, which does not bode well for a team that has been forced to rely heavily on Brady so far this year.

Brady has stated that he hopes New England doesn’t become overly reliant on passing the ball as they did in 2002, when they went 9-7 and missed the playoffs partly due to an inconsistent rushing attack. Plenty of prognosticators are already predicting the end of New England’s reign as the NFL’s best team. Brady, for one, doesn’t think he or his team should be feeling any differently now than they did at the start of the season.

“You hear what people say and you can use it as a way to motivate you. I guess sometimes it does motivate you. We're going to approach it very much the same way. We've had a pretty good approach here for a while. We don't intend on changing it anytime soon.”

What to look for: Does Richard Seymour play? Seymour is listed as questionable with an apparent knee injury suffered when he came in as a fullback on Corey Dillon’s touchdown run last week. If the Patriots are without their biggest playmaker on the defensive line, the pass rush will have a harder time collapsing the pocket and pressuring Vick. Seymour also routinely engages two linemen on rushing plays, helping free linebackers to make plays. Jarvis Green, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren will all need to step up their play should Seymour not be able to suit up. The Patriots may show the Falcons more 3-4 base defenses as well to make up for the potential absence.

Notes: The Patriots have forced only three turnovers so far this season -- one interception and two fumble recoveries. Atlanta has a +4 turnover differential compared to New England’s -5 … Brady is 8-0 in games played indoors (97.4 rating) … New England has averaged nearly 37 points in its last three games in domes … Troy Brown needs five receiving yards to pass Irving Fryar on the team’s all time list and is tied with Ben Coates with 490 receptions … Atlanta has allowed 14 points per game so far this season.

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