Can The Patriots Defense Keep Up?

Can the New England Patriots defense hold the explosive Bengals offense in check tonight? According to some of the Patriots defenders, the answer is yes. But in reality, aren't the Patriots cast of linebackers a bit old to be running around after the Bengals? That's the question to look at in this insider take on the defense.

Been there, done that. That pretty much describes the 2007 Patriots group of experienced, versatile and highly productive linebackers. No group in football has a collective resume that can even compare to that of Adalius Thomas, Mike Vrabel and the rest of New England's vintage vets.

Of course, as Vrabel himself was quick to point out, there is a fine line between being uniquely experienced and just plain old.

"Two months ago we were old. So now we are unique," Vrabel said. "I don't know what to tell you. Next week we'll be something else."

No matter how they're described, one thing that looks like it will be a constant is the group's production. On opening day it was Vrabel leading the way with 2.5 sacks from his return to his favored spot at outside linebacker, while Thomas, Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau held down the fort inside against the Jets. A week later against San Diego it was Rosevelt Colvin's day, recording a pair of sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. Thomas, who dropped a potential interception on opening day, held on to the ball against San Diego for a pick he impressively returned 65 yards for a touchdown.

Vrabel is enjoying life back on the edge after spending the bulk of two seasons working at inside linebacker. If he seems "more active" as one reporter phrased a recent question to Vrabel, he thinks the reasons for that is simple.

"I haven't played outside linebacker in two years. I think inside there's only so much that I can do as far as rushing the quarterback. There are only so many calls that inside guy can rush," Vrabel concluded.

The scary part for opponents is that Belichick's defenses often play better as the year goes on. As he and coordinator Dean Pees find weekly ways to take full advantage of the well-stocked wine cellar of talent at linebacker look for the group to continue to impress in new and productive ways.

"Guys are experienced. Guys kind of get a really good feel for how the game is going. I think A.D. is getting a feel for playing in there and like he said he gets a feel for the game and reads the quarterback really well," Vrabel said. "And Rosey (Colvin) is rushing, and now that he's covering people and getting interceptions we're never going to hear the end of it. I just think the energy that Junior brings and obviously Tedy's leadership and the ability that Tedy has knowing how to play both spots inside really gives us a lot of flexibility."

"I think there's 850 years of experience in the room when Bill walks into the room," veteran back Chad Brown added with a smile. "Obviously there are lots of guys who've made lots of plays and had lots of success in the league. So it does make it a unique group and it's a lot of fun to be around."

It also allows Belichick to have fun coming up with ways to put the experience to use. It wasn't long ago he was doing similar things with guys like Ted Johnson, Roman Phifer and Willie McGinest. The faces may now be different, but they add to up to give New England maybe its most dangerous overall group of linebackers ever.

"I think Bill loves that. I think he likes to have the flexibility, the depth," Colvin said. "I don't know how many linebackers he played back when he was with the Giants. But those guys never came out of the game. Pepper (Johnson) and them were tough. I am not saying that we're not tough, but it's great to have versatility. It's great to have depth. It's great to have guys that are willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win.

"We have a group of guys that are able to do different things and a group of guys that if you roll one guy out you don't expect to see a drop-off. I think that's great. I think you look around the league a lot of times, these guys could be starters on any other team. So that's definitely a benefit for us."

And a real headache for opposing offenses.

PLAYER NOTES

--SS Rodney Harrison's four-game league suspension comes to an end following the Patriots Monday night game in Cincinnati. Third-year player James Sanders has started the first month of the season at the back end of the defense for New England and it will be interesting to see how quickly Harrison is inserted back into the regular rotation and starting lineup in the coming weeks.
--RB Sammy Morris has been a pleasant surprise for the Patriots in his first month with the team. But teammate Mike Vrabel doesn't think those in the New England locker room are surprised, even if quarterback Tom Brady admitted recently that he, like the fans, has been surprised with Morris' production.
"I think Sammy was a proven player in this league," Vrabel said. "Year in and year out, he's done a nice job. Bill (Belichick) has watched the guy for years. He's played at running back when he had the opportunity and been a good special teams player. This probably wasn't the first year Bill tried to put him on his team."
--CB Asante Samuel has seen the bulk of the defensive action in each of the Patriots first four games, putting him well on pace to play in 60 percent of the units snap and fulfill the requirement of a deal with the team to avoid the franchise tag next spring. New England's hot start as a team also has Samuel on pace to surpass the second way in which the cornerback could avoid the tag-12 wins for the team this season. Baring injury and an extreme implosion by New England, it looks like Samuel will hit true unrestricted free agency next spring without the burden of the franchise tag he bore this offseason.
--TE Jason Rader was released from New England's practice squad reserve/injured list Sept. 30. The former rookie free agent out of Marshall spent about a month with the Patriots and has previously spent time with the Falcons and Dolphins in his career.
--QB Tom Brady (70) and Patriots owner Robert Kraft (64) were two of just 10 people from the NFL ranks listed among Business Week's top 100 most influential people in the sports world.

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