Antowain Smith's tough late-season running helped the Patriots win the first two of their three Super Bowl crowns. Now he's on the opposite side and is expecting a rude homecoming Sunday when his New Orleans Saints visit Gillette Stadium.
"I have some great friends up there," Smith said this week on a conference call with the New England media. "It is going to be fun. (But) I know the defense is going to be trying to rip my head off."
A few weeks ago, Smith, 33, might have gotten a warmer (or at least easier) reception. The Patriots' run defense had struggled against San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson (25 carries for 134 yards), Denver's Tatum Bell (13-114) and Buffalo's Willis McGahee (31-136) in a four-game span.
The Patriots (5-4) still rank only 23rd against the run, allowing an average of 123.1 yards per game. But they have played better over the past two games. Indianapolis' Edgerrin James rushed for 104 yards against them but needed 34 attempts to do it (a 3.1-yard average). Then last week the Patriots fared well against Miami's two-back attack of rookie Ronnie Brown (14 rushes for 64 yards) and Ricky Williams (11 rushes for 13 yards).
That's progress, though not enough to satisfy Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, the team's leading tackler.
"You can't play well against the run and give up a lot of yards passing," Vrabel said, mindful that the Patriots allowed Miami's Gus Frerotte to throw for 360 yards and two touchdowns last week. "We need to start playing better overall, a little more consistent."
In Smith, the Patriots will be facing a runner they know well. He was their leading rusher in each of his three seasons in New England (2001-03). Smith, who was elevated to starter for the Saints when Deuce McAllister suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5, has carried 75 times for 360 yards (a 4.8-yard average). He's coming off his first 100-yard game (17 rushes for 110 yards against Chicago).
"I think there's a little bit of familiarity with playing against a guy who was on your football team," Vrabel said. "I think you know what he does well and some things that he doesn't do so well or how he likes to run."
about it on the
Patriots Message Board