Pats' new line of defense

Pro football: New England's improved run defense has been revamped with key free-agent signings and a new mind-set.

Super Bowl

January 29, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON - One of the most hyped story lines of the week has been the Carolina Panthers' two-year turnaround from a one-win team to a Super Bowl participant.

What has been lost is the equally impressive renaissance of the New England Patriots' run defense, which could become a critical factor against the grind-it-out Panthers. Within a year, the Patriots transformed themselves from the league's second-worst defense against the run to the fourth best.

But New England's major revival was a product of a few minor adjustments. A couple of veteran additions, a tweaking of the defensive scheme and a slightly different mind-set took a source of embarrassment and turned it into one of pride.

"We just really took a hard look at how we did things last year and how we played against the run," said New England outside linebacker Mike Vrabel. "It's an attitude. It's getting off blocks and making tackles. That was a big commitment we made in training camp."

It appears that the Patriots' run defense won't have to undergo any more changes.

Inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who has an injured right calf, practiced yesterday and was listed as probable on the injury report, giving the team's second-leading tackler a 75 percent chance of playing.

"I expect to get better from here on out," Bruschi said. "If I have any type of limitation, I'm not going to play. But I don't anticipate that. What I'm trying to say is I expect to be there."

While Bruschi has been the centerpiece of New England's defense for the past three seasons, the Patriots improved themselves last offseason by adding nose tackle Ted Washington and strong safety Rodney Harrison around him.

Those upgrades helped the Patriots hold teams to 90.3 yards rushing a game and allow one 100-yard rusher. In 2002, New England gave up 137.4 yards a game and watched running backs crack 100 yards eight times.

The biggest difference came when the Patriots traded with the Chicago Bears to get the 365-pound Washington - who is known as Mount Washington by his teammates - just 19 days before the season opener. With Washington and Richard Seymour plugging up the middle while taking on double teams, it allows the linebackers to chase down running backs to the outside.

"I think as outside linebackers, Willie [McGinest] and I understand that more running plays are going to come to us even if they're not designed to come to us," Vrabel said. "The big fella [Washington] isn't going to let somebody get a free path up the middle. By staying home and being patient, we've been able to make plays in the running game because of that. Guys start up the middle and there's nothing there, so they bounce out."

When they bounce out, running backs have often collided with Harrison, too. He led New England with 140 stops in the regular season.

The Patriots may stack the box for stronger run support, moving Harrison closer to the line of scrimmage. New England has only made that a fixture in its game planning three times this season.

"Rodney is a difference maker," outside linebackers coach Rob Ryan said. "You put him down there and you got an extra linebacker and a tough linebacker."

The Patriots weren't in a position to do that effectively last season with their personnel. In fact, the coaching staff examined the porous run defense and realized it was often out of position.

Known for their wholesale maneuvering of players and gimmick alignments, the Patriots found themselves failing to contain outside runs. The coaches said they have kept to a more simple philosophy on the perimeter.

"We saw if we left Vrabel and McGinest on the edge of the defense, we were a whole lot better off," Ryan said.

New England's yearlong commitment to stopping the run will be met by a Carolina team that has the same mentality in sticking with its ground game.

Powered by tailback Stephen Davis, the Panthers finished with the NFL's No. 7 rushing attack. The Patriots previously faced just one team ranked higher - the Denver Broncos - the only team to record a 100-yard rusher (Clinton Portis) against New England this season.

"It's the biggest test of all because it's the biggest game of all," Bruschi said. "If we don't stop the running game this week, it's going to be a long game. We all know that it's the strength of their team, and it's one of the many strengths of our team. So, it's going to be strength against strength."

Run stoppers

A comparison of the New England Patriots' run defense in 2002 and this season:

Year ......................... '02 .............. '03

Games ...................... 16 ............... 18

Yards per game ... 137.4 ........... 90.3

Yards per carry ........4.7 ............. 3.6

Touchdowns ..............17 .............. 12

100-yard rushers........ 8 ................ 1

Ranking-x ............... 31st............ 4th

x - Rankings are for 16-game regular season

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