By: Bob George/BosSports.net
August 19, 2005

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FOXBOROUGH -- Whatever learning curve there is on Chad Brown, it had better not be too prohibitive.

Meanwhile, Mike Vrabel sat by on the sideline in street clothes, Monty Beisel failed to lay the wood to someone, and Roman Phifer might want to not turn off his cellphone for a couple of days. Whoever was left to play middle linebacker for the Patriots got pretty much torn up and bludgeoned on Thursday night at Gillette Stadium. The final offensive numbers for the New Orleans Saints aren't pretty, and allowing the third down conversions the Patriots did is another bitter pill to swallow.

Bill Belichick won't look back on this game and immediately remember the sack and the fumble perpetrated upon the now former glamor boy of the Patriots, Matt Cassel, which ultimately paved the way to a 37-27 preseason defeat to the Saints. What Belichick will be looking closely at is how easily the Saints ran the ball up the gut of the Patriot defense, and how poorly the defense performed on third down. And this was largely with the first Saints offensive unit in (they played three quarters, just as head coach Jim Haslett promised).

It pretty much begins with the running backs. You expect Deuce McAllister to perform well, and he knifed through the Patriot defense for 88 yards on 20 carries and an average just under 4.5 yards per carry. Then, to make matters worse, you have old friend Antowain Smith, who played with Tennessee last year, ripping up his old teammates for 54 yards on 13 carries and an average of just over 4 yards. Most of these runs were straight up the middle for both gents, which has to be incredibly disturbing to Belichick, even this being a preseason game with the Patriots playing vanilla against a November opponent.

The third down situation was also a big minus for the Patriots. The two-time champs allowed 11 of 18 third down conversions, several of them with third and ten or more yards. Again, one might counter with the vanilla defense theory and that many of those stops would be made in November, but 11 of 18 is a bit much under any conditions.

At the heart of the problem is the middle linebacker position. While second-year man Vince Wilfork is doing his best to hold down the fort at nose tackle, all he is supposed to do is to tie up blockers so that Brown and Beisel can make the plays behind him. The problem Thursday night is that several Saints linemen were able to get into a position to make second-level blocks on Brown and Beisel, blocks that they, especially Brown, were largely unable to shed. When things are right, no team can run up the gut against the Patriots the way the Saints did.

Brown freely admits that he is facing a huge learning challenge, and it shows. It doesn't look like age (Brown is 35) is the big problem. He just isn't in the right position to make the stops. And while you can expect McAllister to do well, allowing Smith to run wild simply isn't cricket.

Right now, these two men are the best the Patriots have at this position. Vrabel is a natural outside backer who is still getting over his ankle sprain from last week against the Bengals. Phifer is still a free agent and might rejoin his old mates before long. Matt Chatham and Larry Izzo are both special teams guys who can't be counted on as serious replacements for Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson. It is a problem that Belichick and Scott Pioli no doubt are monitoring closely, but right now it is the Achilles heel of the Patriots. Many more teams will lick their chops and attack this weak underbelly much like teams did in 2002 when the decline in team speed was exposed against Kansas City in Week 3.

Bright-eyed optimists can look at other areas and gleam with pride, as well as the fact that the Patriots lost the game only because Belichick allowed Cassel to stay in there and cough up the five-point fourth quarter lead seemingly single-handedly. Tom Brady saw his first preseason action, shook off an early pick, and played like his usual self. Doug Flutie came in for his first action as a Patriot since 1989 and played incredibly well. Ellis Hobbs showed tremendous promise as a return man and played much better in the secondary versus his rough night last week in Cincinnati. Tim Dwight, who has had a rough camp, hauled in three catches for 69 yards, including a terrific 45-yard grab in the first quarter.

How strange. Basically speaking, the coordinator-less offense looked more in sync than the depleted defense under Eric Mangini. The Patriots would have put up more than 27 points had Flutie been allowed to play longer. Again, you could cover up the defensive complaints by saying that, had Brady or Flutie played longer, the Patriots would have won and nobody then cuts up the linebacker corps as much.

Even if the Patriots win 47-37, the linebacker situation has to be addressed. Up at Fenway Park, you have a Red Sox team that should thank its lucky stars it has a great offense (depending upon Manny Ramirez's state of mind on that day, of course). But they have a bullpen crying out for the return of Keith Foulke and an ace named Curt Schilling who badly needs to return to the rotation and stop giving up all those ninth-inning hits and runs. Sooner or later, the bullpen needs to be addressed. The Sox bullpen and the Patriot middle linebackers are brothers in spirit.

Maybe Brown will learn the system in time for the season opener against Oakland. Maybe Beisel will also. Maybe Rodney Harrison will need to cheat up in the box and help out more with the run, though whoever is playing cornerback had better eat their vitamins. Maybe Belichick wanted the Saints to think they can run on the Patriots, reasoning that that is what they will be thinking in November (one need only remember last year's 31-3 pasting at Cincinnati, yet the Patriots prevailed in the matchup that counted).

Whatever the case, right now it looks clear that teams will be able to run on the Patriots this year. It is hard to believe that Belichick allowed all those rushing yards on purpose. But the Patriots simply won't have Bruschi and Johnson this year to help stop it. And it will be a problem that Belichick will need to meet head on and solve it.

But you all know that he will, of course. The only problem Belichick couldn't solve was keeping his marital status totally secret. Otherwise, the guy has been pretty good at finding ways to win with not a lot out there. Expect the same at middle backer, and expect it soon.


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