Report: A bye week perspective
By Site Staff
Quarterback Tom Brady has made a team-high 68 straight starts for the Patriots. A few more days like the one he had in Denver on Oct. 16 and that streak could be in jeopardy.
Although Brady wasn't sacked in a 28-20 loss to the Broncos that sent the Patriots into their bye week at 3-3, he was beaten up pretty badly. Denver exerted strong pressure on him all day and got in some good licks just as he threw the ball.
The offensive linemen have been the unsung heroes of the Patriots' last two Super Bowl championships. In the playoffs after the 2003 season, for example, Brady threw 126 passes without getting sacked once. Last year's playoff protection dipped as Brady was dropped seven times in three games.
This year the Patriots are using two rookies - Kaczur and guard Logan Mankins - on the left side of the line, although veteran Russ Hochstein played the second half against Denver after Mankins was ejected. And with the Corey Dillon-led running game on the fritz for much of the season, Brady has been throwing more than ever.
The combination of inexperienced blockers and a one-dimensional offense is a dangerous one. The Broncos' assault - fueled in part by a big early lead - could be a frightening preview of what is to come if the Patriots don't get some balance in their attack in order to blunt opposing pass rushes.
"They had some pressure on the quarterback," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the Broncos. "I think that the protection, there were times when it could've been better. No question about it."
The pressure was particularly intense in a disastrous second quarter in which the Patriots were outscored 21-0. Nevertheless, Brady kept dusting himself off. Eventually the protection improved in the second half, and Brady nearly authored the biggest comeback of his career as the Patriots scored the game's final 17 points.
"That's my job, to keep getting up and keep fighting," Brady said.
Start with the sight of inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi back on the practice field, just eight months after suffering a mild stroke at his home. Bruschi's return - he hopes to play against Buffalo on Oct. 30 - should be a huge boost for the Patriots' beleaguered defense. Free agents Monty Beisel and Chad Brown have struggled to replace Bruschi and fellow inside linebacker Ted Johnson, who retired on the eve of training camp because of a series of concussions. If Bruschi is the same player he was - and that's not a given - he should elevate Beisel's game, unless the Patriots decide to switch outside linebacker Mike Vrabel inside full-time to pair with Bruschi. Bruschi also would provide an upgrade in terms of tackling, big-play capability and communication.
Hope is the Patriots' best ally right now, and Bruschi symbolizes that. Strong safety Rodney Harrison, reserve cornerback Chad Scott and reserve safety Guss Scott, who was filling in for Harrison, are all out for the year. But several other vital pieces of the puzzle - defensive end Richard Seymour, running back Corey Dillon, cornerback Randall Gay and maybe even left tackle Matt Light - are expected to return, giving the lineup a little more recognizable look.
While the defense has had major flaws so far, the offense's biggest problem is consistency. At times - especially late in the Pittsburgh and Atlanta road wins - the Patriots have looked unstoppable. If Dillon can build on his breakout effort against the Falcons (he missed the following week with an ankle injury), the running game will hit its stride in time for the bad-weather games in the Northeast. That would take some of the load off quarterback Tom Brady, who is on a record pace for passing yards.
At 3-3, the Patriots won't post a third straight 14-2 regular season. Yet, given the struggles of the rest of the AFC East, they are still in good position to win a third straight division crown. The Patriots pride themselves on playing their best football down the stretch, and they have yet to play any of their six division games. A first-round playoff bye might be asking too much, but this is a team that has won two of its three recent conference championship games in Pittsburgh and would not be intimidated by hitting the road in January. If the Patriots can get healthy and get into the postseason, they won't be an easy out.
Just look at the injury list every week. There was enough turnover in the off-season - cornerback Ty Law and both coordinators left town, Bruschi suffered his stroke, Johnson called it quits. The Patriots didn't need a blizzard of sprained ankles, shredded knees and broken bones on top of that, but that's exactly what has happened.
The defense has been hammered particularly hard. Already short-handed at linebacker, the Patriots have played the last two games without their best defensive lineman (Richard Seymour) and have seen defensive backs (Rodney Harrison, Randall Gay, Tyrone Poole, Chad Scott, Guss Scott) drop like flies. The results have been predictable. All the facets of the game that the defense excelled in during their back-to-back Super Bowl wins - forcing turnovers, denying touchdowns in the red zone, avoiding big plays, harassing quarterbacks - have abandoned them.
Veteran cornerback Duane Starks, in particular, has been burned repeatedly over the last few weeks, and free safety Eugene Wilson seems much less effective without Harrison by his side. Wilson, by the way, has been paired with four strong safeties so far this season.
The offense hasn't been blameless, either. As good as the passing game has been at times, it fades in and out like the rest of the team, and dropped balls are starting to be an issue. Meanwhile, the running game has been a mystery all season, sabotaged by poor blocking that has led to too many negative plays. A year after rushing for a franchise-record 1,635 yards, Dillon is on pace to finish with fewer than 900. The offensive line, which lost left guard Joe Andruzzi in free agency and Light to a broken leg in Week 3, didn't find its stride until the Week 6 win in Atlanta, when Dillon ran for 106 yards. True to form, Dillon hurt his ankle late in that game and missed the loss in Denver before the bye week.
--WR Deion Branch has caught at least one pass in 37 straight games, playoffs included, for which he has been active. Branch hasn't been shut out since a Thanksgiving win in Detroit in 2002.
--K Adam Vinatieri has made 25 of his last 26 field-goal attempts in the second half, dating to the 2003 regular-season finale. He also has made 21 straight kicks in the fourth quarter since Dec. 8, 2002.
--OLB Willie McGinest has started 30 consecutive games, the longest active streak on the Patriots defense.
--TE Christian Fauria still has not caught a pass. For the 11-year veteran it's the deepest he's gone into a season without having a reception.
--LB Don Davis leads the Patriots with 11 special teams tackles.
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