GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 5, 2011

If Pats are tough up front, secondary issues won't matter

On Pro Football
Hector Longo

FOXBORO — The answer: Earthwind Moreland, Tebucky Jones, Randall Gay, Antwan Harris, Matt Stevens, Don Davis and Dexter Reid.

The question: Name seven forgettable New England Patriots who started or played key roles in the secondary on a Super Bowl championship team.

Maybe during the lockout, Bill Belichick flipped on "Jeopardy!" one night and stumbled on this stumper. Clearly, the coach has realized — after years of dumping resources into the defensive backfield — it doesn't have to matter.

Priority one this year in training camp has been ferocity in the front seven. Get tough up front, bust up and agitate the offense at the line of scrimmage, and it really won't matter if Darius Butler can't cover.

Ferocious.

If the 2001 title team had a buzzword on defense, it was "opportunistic." The 2003 and 2004 teams were physically, mentally and emotionally "superior."

The 2011 Pats, if they are to return to their position of glory position — that is accepting the Lombardi Trophy on a grey February day in Indianapolis — have to be "ferocious."

"Everybody (on defense) wants to hit the quarterback," said one of those new faces on the defensive front, Albert Haynesworth. "We all have to go out and do it."

Haynesworth, 30, is the poster child (it's an immense poster, folks) for that ferocity.

Once the baddest man in the violent cesspool that is the NFL trenches, The Sporting News 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year moped through the past two seasons in Washington, hardly lifting his hand off the ground from his three-point stance.

Thursday night, he preached the return to the Belichick Gospel.

"(Defensive line coach) Pepper Johnson, he tells us, 'Go as hard as you can for however many plays. If that's three, four plays, do that, come out and we'll have someone else send another wave of attack in.' That's what we're going to do," said Haynesworth, who played a dozen or so snaps against the Giants' subs, registering three tackles, two solo.

"I'm going to play as hard as I possibly can. When I get gassed, I'm going to come out."

"Wave of attack," ... Now that's new verbiage in the Patriots' defensive playbook.

Over the last five or six years, Belichick spent much of his time lamenting issues at the skill positions.

When he reached the AFC title game in 2006 without a legitimate NFL receiver, he went after Wes Welker and Randy Moss, and that was after chasing the likes of Doug Gabriel, Jabar Gaffney, Reche Caldwell, Chad Jackson, Tim Dwight and Bethel Johnson.

When Ty Law and later Rodney Harrison and Asante Samuel moved on, he exhausted draft picks (Ellis Hobbs, James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather, Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite, Pat Chung, Darius Butler, Devin McCourty and Ras-I-Dowling) and lavished cash on free agent defensive backs.

The front seven seemed solid enough, right? Jerod Mayo was racking up 100-plus tackles. Vince Wilfork is a perennial Pro-Bowler. Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham, both 2010 draftees, showed promise.

Then came reality, though. The defense, as perky and prominent as it seemed in 11-5, 10-6 and 14-2 seasons since 2007, had done little when it mattered. The Pats are 0-3 in the playoffs since Super Bowl XLII in February 2008.

And while Tom Brady and the offense continue to roll at the top of the NFL in points scored, this defense has sunk to the bottom, allowing an NFL-worst 47 percent conversion rate on third downs last year, to go with a No. 25 ranking in yards allowed.

Belichick stepped up and did something about those two numbers, changing his defense's look — from a three-man to a four-man front — and its attitude, where attacking and disrupting have replaced read and react.

Haynesworth is the biggest addition but might even be considered minor when you figure in the free-agent signings of veterans Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Gerard Warren (who was here last year) and Mark Anderson. Remember, these guys are joining with Wilfork, too.

"And what we do here — which is pretty good, I mean unbelievable, it will help you — is that we rotate a lot," said Haynesworth. "We have a lot of depth. We had good depth at Tennessee, but here, we have great depth. We have guys that go to any other team and start."

The size should help open things up for the two or three Pats linebackers.

Depending on the down and distance, you'll see Jerod Mayo paired with any combination of Gary Guyton (passing downs), Brandon Spikes (running downs), Rob Ninkovich (coverage) and Dane Fletcher (any down).

"I'm going into my fourth year. Coach Belichick is doing different things with me so whatever it ends up being I'm willing to do," said Mayo, who opened some eyes on the blitz with a pair of sacks in Week 2 of the preseason at Tampa. "Whether it be making the big plays or just making a bunch of tackles — whatever these guys want me to do, I'm willing to do. It does feel good having those big workhorses in front of me."

Expect to see plenty of Pat Chung flying up into the box from his safety spot in a Troy Polamalu-type effort to make the offense flinch.

"It definitely makes a difference having a pass rush because it makes the quarterback make quick decisions," said Chung, who could finally blossom in this scenario as he is a much better player coming forward than he is back-pedalling in coverage.

"When he is under pressure, it makes it harder for him to make the right decision."

Watch for Chung this year finally making impact plays, turnover-type plays. Belichick likes him. The kid works hard and might even be named a captain this time around.

Again, his aggression, that ferocity, that attack mode is where the Pats' defense has to be.

Haynesworth set the tone of this camp, way back in August, before he disappeared for a three-week training sabbatical.

"Just to kill the quarterback," he spoke of his role here, lining up next to Vince Wilfork. "That's going to be scary. It's going to be scary for other teams."

2010 Defensive Struggles

NFL rank Number

Yards/game 25th 366.5

Yards/play 26th 5.6

First downs 30th 21.8

3rd down pct. 32nd 47%

4th down pct. 24th 60%