Patriots Linebacker Concerns Continue

The Patriots are weighing their options of running different defensive alignments based upon the personnel available to them. With the loss of Tedy Bruschi for at least a month, a number of role-players have stepped in to fill the void. Veterans Barry Gardner and Tully-Banta Cain bring knowledge and experience, but the concern in Foxboro is to avoid a repeat from last season's poor start.

Would you trade linebacker Tedy Bruschi for strong safety Rodney Harrison?

In effect, that's what the Patriots did in the second week of training camp. They lost Bruschi to a broken wrist but balanced out that bad news by welcoming Harrison back to the practice field for the first time since his horrific left knee injury in Week 3 of last season.

Bruschi's injury -- which will sideline him at least for the preseason -- further complicates a linebacking corps already trying to overcome the loss of Willie McGinest, who was released in the off-season and scored a big free-agent deal with Cleveland. Harrison's return, on the other hand, is a boost to the secondary, which badly missed his leadership went he first went down on Sept. 25.

Harrison sat out the preseason opener against Atlanta, but, barring any setbacks, the odds seem to favor him being ready for Week 1, a home game against the Bills. He showed no ill effects after his first few practices but said it was too soon to start thinking about the opener.

Harrison returned to practice on the same day that center Dan Koppen and cornerback Randall Gay debuted. Koppen (shoulder) and Gay (ankle) also suffered season-ending injuries last year. Defensive linemen Richard Seymour (a minor quadriceps injury) and Johnathan Sullivan (who is believed to have failed his pre-camp conditioning run) also came off the physically unable to perform list that day.

Harrison, 33, said he would wear a knee brace for the rest of his career. That might raise concerns about his speed, but Harrison said not to worry. Despite being in the area on a deep completion to wide receiver Troy Brown during his first practice, Harrison pointed out that the play was not his fault.

"Don't blame that on me," he said with a grin, "because the first thing you're going to say is, 'He lost a step.' Time my 40(-yard dash) ... You'll see."

The safety position is somewhat unsettled. Harrison and Eugene Wilson formed a great starting tandem for two-plus seasons, but Wilson seemed to struggle without Harrison last year and had spent most of his time early in camp at cornerback (his old college position). Meanwhile, Artrell Hawkins, who eventually replaced Harrison last season, and second-year pro James Sanders have become the No. 1 unit.

With Bruschi and veteran Chad Brown (hand) out of action, the Patriots have had to scramble at linebacker. They still have Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin to lean on outside, but Bruschi's absence means he won't get to develop a rapport with Monty Beisel, who was projected to start next to him on the inside of the Patriots' 3-4 scheme.

"We're (still) around each other every day," Beisel said. "We definitely know each other on a personal level. It's about getting some reps together and getting a little cohesion and chemistry. At this point, we have a bunch of guys rolling in at different spots. We have to work to get chemistry wherever we can."

As for the rest of the linebacking corps, Don Davis, Larry Izzo and free agent Barry Gardner are primarily special teamers, while Eric Alexander (a former practice squadder) and Tully Banta-Cain (a seventh-round pick in 2003) are still trying to carve out a niche for themselves. Rookies Jeremy Mincey (a sixth-rounder) and Corey Mays, Freddie Roach and Pierre Woods (all undrafted) round out the group. Gardner and Davis started inside in the preseason opener.

Patriots linebackers Barry Gardner (47) and Don Davis(51) man the inside position during run drills at training camp. (Photo: Kevin Saleeba)



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