By: Bob George/BosSports.net
August 06, 2003

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Patriots/Giants
Close-Up
Where: Gillette Stadium
Foxborough, Mass.
When: Thursday 8/7/02
8:00 PM EDT
Television: ESPN
WCVB Channel 5 in Boston
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 206, 931
2002 Team Records: Patriots 9-7
Giants 10-6
Latest Line: Patriots by 2 1/2
FOXBOROUGH -- You're a liar if you say you had Rick Lyle in your office pool for starting Patriot nose tackle.

Looks like this is how poorly the search for the Patriot nose tackle of Bill Belichick's dreams is going. Jarvis Green has slipped down the depth chart, Ty Warren is playbook challenged, and Ethan Kelley is looking every bit like a seventh round pick. With the Giants in town tomorrow night for the preseason opener, there appears to be little or no resolution to perhaps the most important question of the offseason for the Patriots.

With so many eyes focused on the defense, the players know they're under a constant microscope. And the fans are perhaps looking just as hard as the coaching staff. It's a known fact that the Patriots will go with a base 3-4 defenses for 2003, but such a defense will essentially not work unless a solid nose tackle is there at the center of the storm.

Here is our 2003 defensive preview, done much the same way the offense was done the other night.

Defensive line

Projected starters For Thursday night's clash with the Giants, look for Bobby Hamilton, Lyle and Richard Seymour to start down low. Seymour will be watched closely to see how his pass rushing skills, if any, develop. This is considered critical, or rather second behind a decent nose tackle, to the success of the 3-4. Moving Seymour to end was intended to be one half of a pass-rushing duo, with the other half being either Willie McGinest or Rosevelt Colvin.

Time to get excited If Seymour does work out as a bona fide pass rusher, and if Green or Warren work out as a nose tackle. Whoever wins the job at nose tackle will be charged mainly with clogging up the middle and tieing up blockers, allowing the linebackers to come in and stuff running backs with regularity. Seymour's pass rushing prowess will speak for itself. Mastery of both (must be both, not either) of these areas means that Belichick satisfactorily addressed the offseason's biggest concern.

Sure sign of trouble If Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson is brought in. This means that the existing personnel are flopping, and the Patriots are forced to try a professional loafer out at nose tackle. It is extremely unlikely that Wilkinson will become a Patriot, but we could revise the comment and say that any free agent nose tackle whom Belichick brings in is not a good immediate sign that the new defense is working. A secondary bad sign is if Lyle is the starting nose tackle on opening day.

Linebackers

Projected starters Maybe there is the chance that Ted Johnson will flame out again like he did last year at this time. But if he's penciled in at starting inside backer, don't expect any backtalk. The most astonishing revelation from training camp is that Johnson and Roman Phifer, an outside lifer, are going to begin the season as starters inside, sending the popular Tedy Bruschi to the bench. Bruschi, who seemed to come into his own during the time when Johnson couldn't win his way back into the starting lineup, is relegated to his old "twelfth man" status again. Colvin and Mike Vrabel will hold down the fort on the outside.

Time to get excited Johnson leads the team in tackles and Colvin leads the team in sacks. These two things are being counted on to be a byproduct of the Patriot defensive modus operandi. Johnson has a real chance to finally realize the promise he showed in the Super Bowl XXXI season, and Colvin will be unleashed on opposing offenses in ways he never was in Chicago. Seeing both men checking for hotels in Honolulu in February might mean that the Patriots had a greatly successful year.

Sure sign of trouble This four man unit becomes a three man unit. This will mean that the down linemen simply cannot function in the new system, and that they need to go back to a four-man line. If they stay healthy, the margin of error for the linebackers is great, and they have very few scenarios where they, by themselves, should fail to produce this season. We did say "stay healthy", and part of that problem is rookie Tully Banta-Cain, whom we won't see Thursday night.

Secondary

Projected starters Hope you have your training camp rosters and reports close at hand on Thursday night. You'll need it, especially in the secondary. Ty Law and Otis Smith will give way to rookies Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel, who will both start against the Giants. Both men have been at the top of the rookie crop for this training camp, and both will be tested pretty well as they take on Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer. The strong safety tandem of Lawyer Milloy and Rodney Harrison will be scoped out carefully, as opposing running backs will shake in their socks but wide receivers might also be licking their chops.

Time to get excited If Otis Smith can retire and nobody will be worried about it. Smith will deserve a huge standing ovation from the fans, but the Patriots cannot stand there in fright as they hand his RCB position over to some young'un who's not ready for prime time. Both Smith and Law have Super Bowl picks on their resumes, but Smith's time may soon be at an end due to age, and Law's as well due to cap issues. Thus far, Wilson and Samuel have drawn tremendous praise from the coaching staff.

Sure sign of trouble Patriot Nation starts wondering why we let Tebucky Jones get away. There is no true free safety on the team, and neither Milloy nor Harrison have great pass defense skills. If defenses start throwing home run balls which the safeties are unable to provide help on, or if, God forbid, safeties are forced into man-to-man coverage on deep fly patterns or the like, the team will need to get someone to play centerfield, and pronto.

Special Teams

Projected starters Adam Vinatieri will continue his sterling work as placekicker. But Daniel Pope was brought in to give incumbent punter Ken Walter some competition. Walter was unable to duplicate his 2001 proficiency in punts inside the 20, and it is hoped that Pope will either win the job or drive Walter to keep it. Kick and punt returners are literally open for audition; someone amongst Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk, Deion Branch and Bethel Johnson should win the job(s). Larry Izzo will likely continue his great work as premier hatchet man on kicking teams.

Time to get excited If someone can emerge from the receiving pack and be amongst the league leaders in either punt or kickoff return categories. Chances are that Brown will keep his punt return job; Faulk is the odds-on-favorite to be the kickoff specialist. But Belichick and Brad Seely might be secretly hoping that either Branch or Johnson, two speed burners, win the kickoff job and give the Patriots a weapon the Jets had last year in Chad Morton.

Sure sign of trouble If Walter, or whoever wins the punting job, winds up leading the league in punts. This will naturally mean that Charlie Weis didn't fix the offensive problems properly, and that Tom Brady and his gang are sputtering instead of scoring.


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