Improvement Helps Defense
By Site Staff
Buried beneath New England's overall defensive struggles in recent weeks has been the fact that the team's linebackers, a group that has been highly criticized at times this season, have seemingly fallen into place.
Tedy Bruschi's return, Mike Vrabel's move to the inside and the addition of Rosevelt Colvin to the starting lineup has given defensive coordinator Eric Mangini a group of experienced, versatile players to work with in his weekly game plans. The new mix has resulted in increased production. And considering the endless challenges the Patriots have faced in the secondary and the injuries that have slowed the defensive line, it's a mix that could be asked to carry even more of the defensive load in the coming weeks.
"I think they are our most experienced players, and I think that you get about what you would expect from that group," coach Bill Belichick said of his new-look group of linebackers. "It could always be better, but it's certainly something to build with."
In four games on the inside, including three aligned next to Bruschi, Vrabel has recorded 45 tackles, one sack and one interception. An impressive athlete who has converted from defensive end to outside linebacker and now to the inside over his NFL career, while also dabbling at times at tight end, Vrabel is showing impressive production while still learning the inside ropes.
"It's certainly different," Vrabel said. "There are different angles and different plays. How I would play one play outside, trying to get it back into the guys inside, as opposed to trying to keep the right angle. Sometimes I overrun a play. Sometimes there is as fine line. As long as I stay patient in there, I think I'll be OK."
Vrabel has been working on the inside to some degree, in practice and preparation time, since training camp. While he's not yet a polished fit, Belichick has been pleased with the transition.
"It's a little bit different for him, but he's done a good job," Belichick said. "Mike is a smart guy, and he has some physical skills to match up in there against some of the challenges that he meets. He reads things pretty quickly and has a good understanding and is pretty instinctive and aware of the game situations and the plays as he's seen them from a little different point of view, from inside and off the line. He's doing fine."
In his first three games back in the lineup after recovering from a stroke, Bruschi recorded 23 tackles, putting forth his most energetic performance in Sunday's win in Miami. Clearly not back to his previous playmaking, Pro Bowl level just yet, the veteran should only get better in the coming weeks as he works his way back to complete football shape.
But even beyond the unexpected and unprecedented return for Bruschi, the brightest change might be Colvin's return to every-down action. While he played in every game last season, he earned just one start and finished the year with an extremely quiet 38 tackles, five sacks and one forced fumble. He had a similar role early this season before the linebacker shakeups and injuries saw him return to the starting lineup at outside linebacker in Week 6 in Denver. In his first four games as a starter, Colvin recorded 27 tackles, including six for a loss, and two forced fumbles, including a sack/forced fumble/fumble recovery combination against Buffalo's Kelly Holcomb that keyed New England's fourth-quarter comeback win two weeks ago. Colvin also forced a fumble against the Dolphins.
Still a work in progress, Colvin is returning to the pre-hip-injury form that made him New England's prized free agent acquisition prior to the 2003 season.
"I have always said, if I am presented with an opportunity, I try to take advantage of it," Colvin said of his recently increased role. "I try to do my job the best that I can. If that's providing a spark or that's doing what I am supposed to do on every down, then that's what I think every guy should aim to do. Hopefully I can continue to play better and play well in clutch situations and go out and communicate and fly around and tackle and rush the passer."
Doing that seems to be easier, or at least more productive, when Colvin is out there every down and able to get a more accurate feel for the game. He had similar success in significant action during Super Bowl XXXIX and appears to continue to improve each week with the added workload.
"I think the more you are involved, the more you get more in tune with what's going on," Colvin said. "It gives you an opportunity to get into the flow of the game. But I think regardless of if you get one or 60 snaps, you are expected to perform at that level on that one snap that you get. Like I said, my attitude has always been, any opportunity that I get, I try to take advantage of it and try to do the things that are asked of me. So whether that's resulted in me getting more or less playing time, I'm just going to leave it all on the line and try to do what I can."
Add Willie McGinest, who has had a solid if unspectacular season to date with 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks through nine games, as a constant on the outside, and the veteran linebacker depth is magnified even more. That mix now also allows newcomers Chad Brown and Monty Beisel to take on depth roles as they continue to acclimate to the system. Beisel has rotated inside at times with Bruschi and Vrabel, while Brown can now serve a more situational role on the outside that may be more suited to the skills that have made him the active sack leader among NFL linebackers with 78.
In all, New England now has a better combination of depth and versatility at the linebacker spot than it had over a tough first two months of 2005. Whether the added production can lift the overall defense in the coming weeks is another question, but improved linebacker play in any 3-4 defense can be seen as nothing less than a positive sign, and there haven't been a lot of those for Mangini's unit this season.
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