By: With Steve Grogan & R.R. Marshall
September 11, 2006

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R.R. Marshall: Steve, it was not exactly a sterling effort by the Patriots in their 2006 season opener, but the 19-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills still counts as a win and that's the important thing, right?

Steve Grogan: It doesn't really matter at the end of the day if you won ugly or not; the only thing people will remember is that you got the victory. A lot of teams struggled in their season opener on Sunday and some of them didn't come away with a win. I thought the Patriots did a lot of nice things in this game but they just didn't do enough of them. They really had to scramble around at the end to win it on a safety by Ty Warren, which is a highly unusual way to win.

RRM: How much of what we saw can be attributed to it being the first game of the season?

SG: I think the way the NFL is set up now with training camp being only four weeks and the starters not really playing that much, the first few games of the regular season are the ones where you work out a lot of your mistakes and you get used to playing with each other. It's going to be a little sloppy early in the year and we certainly got a taste of that in this game.

RRM: Tom Brady called the first half the worst half of football he's ever played. I'm not inclined to disagree with him!

SG: It certainly wasn't a good omen when Takeo Spikes blindsided Brady on the first play and the Bills recovered for a quick touchdown. That's not the way you want to start the season, and they seemed to be playing uphill the entire first half after that. For Tom Brady to throw for only three net passing yards in the first half is really unusual. It almost looked like they didn't have a really solid plan for what they were trying to do throwing the football. It was like they were groping to try to find something that was going to work. They didn't hardly throw the ball at all to Ben Watson in the first half and then he caught a couple in the second half, but he's going to have to have the ball thrown to him eight to ten times a game if they are going to be successful. It was definitely a grab bag in the passing game for the Patriots which kind of surprised me.

RRM: In a close game two fourth down plays in the second half really seemed to decide the outcome; the one Buffalo failed to convert thanks to a Dan Davis tackle (along with a generous spot by the officials) and the one Corey Dillon converted at the two minute warning that sealed the win. What was your take on these two make-or-break plays?

SG: They were the big plays in the game, there was no doubt about it. Buffalo got a little panicky at the time with a new head coach in Dick Jauron perhaps trying to make a statement. I was surprised the Bills didn't take the field goal at that point. That would have put them up 20-7 on the road, and with their defense playing well I would have settled for the three points. But they had been running the ball well up to that point so I can see why he did it. They might not have gotten the best spot by the officials, but when they ran the play in slow motion Willis McGahee's knee was down BEFORE he fell forward. Normally when you fall forward you get that yardage, but fortunately for the Patriots he didn't get the benefit of the doubt.

As far as the Patriots fourth down play, with the way they had been running the ball they were fairly confident they could pick up the first down at that point in the game. Normally they may have settled for the three points that would have forced the Bills to score a touchdown to win the game, but with a rookie kicker I don't think I would want to put him in that kind of a situation in his first game and maybe that was Belichick's thinking as well. If you weigh the risks and rewards the consequences of him missing the kick and having his head all screwed up for a few weeks wasn't worth it compared to getting the first down that would have clinched the game.

RRM: The Patriots ran the ball 41 times against the Bills and threw it only 23 times. Was that by design or out of necessity since the air game was so unproductive?

SG: I think there was an emphasis on the run because the Patriots don't have a lot of experienced receivers out there right now. They have a couple of really good running backs in Corey Dillon and the rookie Laurence Maroney, and when you can pound people like they did it allows you to hold onto the ball and take a lot of pressure off of your defense. The running game was highly effective and they decided to stick with it.

I was really impressed with Maroney, as I was with Corey Dillon. Dillon looked like he was back to his old form, and Maroney provides a change up to Dillon's style. Dillon hits the hole and runs over people and Maroney hits the hole and runs around people. When you can throw that combination at a defense they are going to be hard-pressed to stop either one of them. Toss in Kevin Faulk who can catch a defense by surprise with the draw or some screens and it makes for a nice little trio in the backfield.

RRM: You can't have a running attack without a good offensive line. Already people are saying that this could be the best offensive line Bill Belichick has ever assembled in New England. What is your take?

SG: I think they can be. They looked great in the running game against the Bills but they were horrible in pass protection, so needless to say they still have a lot of work to do. On the whole they have more talent and depth there then they have had in the past, and once they start logging some playing time together I think they'll get better.

RRM: It took most of the first half for the Patriots' defense to find their equilibrium. It seemed Bills running back Willis McGahee was headed for a big day until they found a way to shut him down in the second half?

SG: It seemed both the Patriots offense and defense were struggling to get to halftime where they could regroup. When they came out for the second half I thought they had really dialed up their intensity level. They appeared to just be going through the motions in the first half but you could definitely see the improvement in their play in the second half.

RRM: The Patriots secondary had all sorts of problems coping with the Bills receivers using the Colts' patented "double move" to get open. Is that a tough in-game adjustment for a defensive back to make, because they really didn't shut that down until after halftime?

SG: They were getting burned by that tactic repeatedly in the first half and I couldn't tell if it was the defensive backs fault or the linebackers not getting out in the underneath coverage where they needed to be. When a team is running those kinds of plays you need your linebackers to fill that area where they are either coming back into or moving back out to. I didn't think the Patriots' linebacking crew played very well in this game, either in pass coverage or in defending against the run. The Bills were running the ball well and were consistently getting to that second level of the defense, and there was nobody filling the holes. The defensive backs were making a lot of tackles in the running game which is not a good thing. Junior Seau was making a lot of tackles but they were seven yards down the field where you don't want them to be if you are the Patriots.

Aside from that I thought the defensive backfield looked really good in the second half. I couldn't see it watching the game but I understand they put Ellis Hobbs on the Bills deep threat Lee Evans wherever he went and he really shut him down (only two catches for 25 yards). I think the Patriots have some good young talent there and they will be okay at that position this year.

RRM: Stephen Gostkowski made both extra points and his only field goal attempt in his NFL debut. Considering he's replacing Adam Vinatieri in this town he seems to be handling the pressure so far?

SG: I think there's some pressure, but I don't think he realizes just how much there is right now. As the season winds down and the playoffs draw closer and his kicks become bigger and more important I think it is going to be interesting to see how he handles it.

RRM: The big news this week is the Patriots parting ways with disgruntled wide receiver Deion Branch and sending him to Seattle for a #1 pick in 2007. What is your reaction?

SG: It was a little surprising they made a deal like this, but in the long run it could be a good deal for both teams. Deion wanted out, and they got a #1 draft pick for him so both sides got what they wanted. We won't know how equitable the deal is until next year when we see who the Patriots get with the draft pick, but if Seattle goes on to win the Super Bowl with Deion playing well we may look back on it and say it wasn't a very good move. But right now on the surface I think it is a good trade for both sides.

RRM: Do you think the reason they made the deal now was that they didn't want this to become any even bigger distraction for the team than it had already become?

SG: I think that was probably the case. This was similar to what happened with Lawyer Milloy a few years back. They felt they had to make a move because they didn't want to be talking about it for the next 10 weeks if Branch had decided to sit out that long, which it appeared he had every intention of doing. If that was indeed the case then they made the right move.

RRM: How much did Deion Branch's absence detract from the Patriots' passing offense in this game? Was it as big a factor as some have postulated?

SG: To be honest I really don't think it had a lot to do with what we saw. You have to get guys open and they weren't getting many guys open, and I'm not sure it would have mattered if it were Deion Branch or anyone else out there. Ben Watson is the kind of player that should be able to get a ball thrown to him at least two or three times a half, and he only got one ball thrown to him in the first half and had only three catches all afternoon. If you go back to the days of Ben Coates and how teams used to double and triple team him and he still had five or six catches a game without any All-Pro receivers around to protect him. They just have to find a way to get Watson the ball, and I don't know if it was play selection or Buffalo was using a defensive scheme they didn't expect to see but they didn't get any production from their big tight end until the second half and that has got to change.

RRM: You experienced a high-profile holdout situation during your playing days when Leon Gray and John Hannah held out at the start of the 1977 season. While you and your teammates said all the right things to the press you had to know you weren't as good a team without the two All-Pros on the left side of your offensive line. Do you think there was similar a feeling with Tom Brady and his teammates with the Branch hold out?

SG: I think as a player you realize you aren't as strong a team without the guy that's holding out, but at the time you have to play with who is there. Football players are pretty good at compartmentalizing things. A lot of times you don't even know who's in the huddle with you; you're just doing your job to the best of your ability. Would they have preferred to have Deion Branch back; would they have been a better team with him? Absolutely. But I don't think they were thinking about that during the week and certainly not on game day. Now they won't have this matter hanging over them any longer and their main focus will be going out to try and win ballgames.

RRM: Here it is Week #2 and we already have a battle between two undefeated teams for first place in the AFC East. Isn't it a little too soon for this kind of thing?

SG: I'm not going to get any sleep this week anticipating this one [laughs]! Curtis Martin is gone and Chad Pennington's arm is healed and he had a field day throwing to Laveranues Coles last Sunday so you have to prepare for this team a little differently this time. Eric Mangini and Bill Belichick know each other very well so there will be a lot of little games being played this week. There will be a lot of change with their signals and the other ways they do things, but in the long view the Patriots are still the more talented team here. This is a game the Patriots should win and I will be surprised if they don't leave the Meadowlands 2-0.

RRM: The Jets raised some eyebrows with a 23-16 victory on the road at Tennessee on Sunday. Is this Jets team a little better than everyone predicted?

SG: I think the Jets will be better this season. Mangini is a good football coach and he should be able to improve them after last year's poor season. I really don't think Tennessee is that good a team. They brought Kerry Collins into quarterback their team only recently and they have a lot of young players there as well, so I don't think you can read too much into that win.

RRM: What are Grogan's grades for the season-opening 19-17 win over the Bills?

SG: I think an overall grade of a B- is fair. They were a little sloppy in the first half but they played much better in the second half. The running attack was a pleasant surprise because they haven't been able to be that dominant on the ground in many years. I thought Rodney Harrison had a good, solid game in his first game back with nine tackles. He definitely sets the tone for the young defensive backs, and there is just something about that veteran leadership that raises everyone else's ability around him. It makes a world of difference for a young defensive back to be playing with confidence instead of tentativeness, which is something we saw all too often back there last year when Harrison was out. But there's still lots of room for improvement, and I hope to see a lot of that against the Jets on Sunday.

Grogan's Grades for Week #1

Offense: B-
Defense: B-
Overall: B-


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