Patriots Tight Ends Play A Big Part

Watching the New England Patriots tight end tandem catch passes downfield last Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons opened a lot of eyes around the league. Defensive coordinators who have gameplanned for Corey Dillon and Deion Branch now have not one, but two new threats to account for. If that weren't enough to contend with, Patriots QB Tom Brady is on pace to shatter his personal best for yards passing in a year. The Denver Broncos have a solid defense, but can they slow down the big men?

Patriots Tight Ends Play A Big Part
By Site Staff

While they were rediscovering their running game last week in Atlanta, the Patriots stumbled upon an equally effective, but somewhat forgotten, weapon -- the tight ends.

Through the first four games, the trio of Dan Graham, Benjamin Watson and Christian Fauria had combined for just seven catches and one touchdown. Then Graham nearly equaled that production himself against the Falcons, catching five passes for a career-high 119 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown on a screen pass that made all the highlight shows.

Watson had only one reception, but he made it count, notching his first NFL touchdown on a 33-yard catch.

"We got open and Tom found us," Graham said. "We made some big plays when we were called on."

Said quarterback Tom Brady of the Graham-Watson combo (Fauria was shut out): "They're a big factor. I wish we could get them the ball like that every week."

When the Patriots (3-2) travel to Denver on Sunday to face the 4-1 Broncos, they might need to lean on the tight ends even more. Running back Corey Dillon, who had a big game against the Falcons, is hobbled by an ankle problem, and the Patriots' defense has slumped badly in the two games since strong safety Rodney Harrison was lost for the season.

The plan all along was for Graham (a first-round draft pick in 2002) and Watson (a first-rounder in 2004) to be big contributors on offense. And while their blocking -- particularly that of Graham -- has been a help, especially with two rookies on the left side of the offensive line, the tight ends hadn't made their mark in the passing game until last week.

Graham was one of the offensive stars. His touchdown was a thing of beauty as he chip-blocked Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney before releasing into the right flat. After getting a terrific open-field block from guard Steve Neal, Graham then beat two defenders to the corner, plowed over safety Bryan Scott and dragged several defenders into the end zone for the score.

"The way that guy runs is ridiculous," Fauria said. "He should have a caboose on the back of him. He's like a train."

Graham and Brady have been in sync at times, most notably at the beginning of last season when Graham had 12 catches and five touchdowns through the first four games. He tailed off after that hot start and finished with 30 catches for 364 yards and seven touchdowns, failing to match the career highs he had set in receptions (38) and yards (409) in 2003.

This season Graham has seven catches for 137 yards. His two 45-yard receptions against Atlanta boosted his yards-per-catch average up to a robust 19.6. Watson is no slouch there either, averaging 21.3 yards.

Graham's hands have often held him back in the passing game. And his blocking prowess has made it tempting to utilize him more as an extra offensive lineman than as a stretch-the-field receiving target. In fact, the selection of Watson in last year's draft seemed to reinforce the notion that the Patriots were looking for more receiving production out of the position.

Yet Watson has had his own problems. As a rookie his contract holdout put him behind schedule, and he played in only one game before a knee injury ended his season in September. Watson has been healthy this year, but he has had his share of drops and penalties, plus one costly fumble that sealed the Patriots' Week 2 loss in Carolina.

Also, Watson acknowledges that he is still trying to earn Brady's trust.

"That takes time as a receiver to form a relationship with a quarterback," said Watson, who has six catches for 128 yards on the season. "My relationship with him isn't the same as (Deion Branch's) is, but I haven't played with him as much."


--After being held to one catch by San Diego the previous week, WR Deion Branch busted out against Atlanta with eight catches for 107 yards. It was Branch's fourth career 100-yard game during the regular season. He has had one in each of his four pro years, not including his two sensational Super Bowl performances -- 10 catches for 143 yards in Super Bowl XXXVIII and 11-133 in Super Bowl XXXIX, when he was named the game's MVP.

Branch said that he was subject to more double-teams this season, but against the Falcons he thrived against single coverage. He had a 51-yard reception on which he beat Atlanta CB DeAngelo Hall one-on-one, and he was singled up against CB Allen Rossum when he drew a key 30-yard pass interference penalty that aided the Patriots' winning drive.

"I think I threw it a little bit early," QB Tom Brady said of the play on which Rossum was flagged. "I wish I'd have made a better throw on it, but (Branch) went up there and (Rossum) was trying to do everything he could to keep him from catching it and we got a call there. That was a big play."

--RB Corey Dillon continues to boycott the media, miffed at suggestions early in the season that he might have lost a step. Dillon, who turns 31 on Oct. 24, at times had a contentious relationship with the Cincinnati media before being traded to New England last offseason. In his first year in Foxboro, Dillon generally was gracious with the media, although he granted only occasional interviews. Recently, Dillon has waived off interview requests, at one point cracking that he was "too old to talk."

Even after a breakout game against the Falcons, in which he posted his first 100-yard effort of the season (23 carries for 106 yards) and became only the 18th runner in NFL history to crack the 10,000-yard mark for his career, Dillon declined to speak.

--Michael Koenen, the Falcons' punter and long-distance kicker, lived up to the second half of that job description last week by booming a 58-yard field goal against the Patriots with one second left in the first half. The kick was the longest ever against the Patriots, besting a 57-yarder by Philadelphia's David Akers on Sept. 14, 2003.

The Patriots outfoxed themselves on the play. Linebacker Mike Vrabel called timeout just before the snap. The Falcons were late hearing the call and went through with the play. Koenen's kick sailed wide right. Given another chance he drilled it.

"We've done that plenty of times in the past," coach Bill Belichick said of calling timeout to try to disrupt the kicker's preparation. "It's a tactic that a lot of teams use. We've used it. I think anytime the play is blown dead like that, it kind of disrupts the timing of the play so the kicker hears the whistle and all of that. (The first one) probably wasn't his best kick ... but he hit the second one."

This week the Patriots will face Denver's Jason Elam, who on Oct. 25, 1998 tied Tom Dempsey's 1970 NFL record by kicking a 63-yard field goal.

BY THE NUMBERS: 1,522 -- Passing yards for QB Tom Brady through five games, putting him on pace to throw for a franchise-record 4,870 yards this season. His career high is 3,764 yards, set in 2002. Drew Bledsoe is No. 1 in the Patriots' record book with 4,555 yards in 1994.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's a roller coaster. One week we're high, one week we're low. Coming off a good win, we have to continue to maintain that and sort of keep going upward and not go back down, like we trended earlier in the season. We have to be careful that we're not falling into that trap of being on an emotional high and then coming down." -- LB Rosevelt Colvin on the Patriots' inconsistency. They are 3-2 and have alternated wins and losses all season.

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