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August 18, 2003
Patriots Not Running From Problems
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net

Good news: Antowain Smith averaged 4.7 yards per carry.

Bad news: Kenny Watson, Trung Canidate and Rock Cartwright averaged a combined 6.1 yards per carry.

You can play with numbers all you want. Baseball statnerds do it all the time, and can put a thousand different spins on most any .190 hitter out there (watch them beam with pride when they tell you that Jeremy Giambi had a higher on-base percentage than Johnny Damon for most of the 2003 season). In this scenario, Smith had only 7 carries, Canidate 5 and Cartwright 3. Stat geeks know full well about the concept of "small sample size", and we certainly have such a situation here.

So, why all the buzz over Smith now ahead of Kevin Faulk at the running back position, and all the alarm over a run defense that doesn't look any better than last year?

Some more beauty with numbers: For the game, the Patriots averaged 4.3 yards per carry, while Washington averaged 4.1. This certainly is a nice stat, until you look beyond the numbers and see that the Patriot rushing stats are skewed by Patrick Pass and his 46 yards on 7 carries for a 6.6 yards per carry average, which all came in the second half against the scrubs. But Watson gained only 15 of his 62 yards in the first half against the first team.

Confused yet?

The goal of this essay is to assess how the Patriot rushing offense and defense did against the top level of competition, as opposed to judging the team with wannabes versus wannabes. As much as you would like to talk about who'll make third string halfback and fourth string nose tackle, what really matters right now is what to expect when things start up for real in September.

There's just one problem. The Redskins, like last week's opponent (Giants) and next week's opponent (Eagles) are opponents the Patriots will face during the first six weeks of the regular season. Because of this, the Patriots will continue to run vanilla offenses and defenses, so as not to give away any special plans for the regular season which the other team can prepare for.

So, how in the world can you sit there and fret over a lousy Patriot run defense when the numbers for the first half weren't really all that bad, and what might have happened had Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel thrown in some tricks and not concentrated on trying different people packages out?

Let's face facts. The Redskins are not a top tier NFL team. It is reasonable to expect that their offensive line will not dominate the Patriots when they meet in the regular season. While Canidate is a potential top tier running back, Watson is not likely to have the kind of game he had when the teams meet for real. Watson was an undrafted free agent out of Penn State and has never shown the ability to cause anyone to project a yards per carry average approaching five.

And while the Redskins did manage 61 yards on 12 carries for a 5.1 average in the first half, very little of this proved to be consequential to the Patriots anyway. On the only scoring drive for the Redskins in the first half, 55 of the 68 yards were through the air, and 35 of them were on only one play, a right sideline bomb to former Jet Laveranues Coles (once Eugene Wilson gets the feel of his safeties a bit better, these kind of passes will diminish greatly).

On that drive, the two rushing plays were of consequence, but they aren't as alarming as has been reported. A seven-yard run by Cartwright came on fourth and one, and a six-yard run by Canidate went for the lone Redskin touchdown of the game. Some experts blamed the "poor rushing defense" on the 3-4 base defense or lack of a nose tackle. But both of these runs were end runs, with Cartwright going left and Canidate going right. On the Canidate touchdown, Mike Vrabel was unable to shake off his block, otherwise he makes the play. Neither of these plays had anything to do with the middle.

This is not to say that Belichick won't address the rushing situation. The Redskins did find some rushing lanes up the middle on occasion. But when you add up all the game dynamics and variables, the Patriots played another decent game on defense. Richard Seymour was once again effective as an outside pass rusher, and the cornerback play of Wilson and Asante Samuel was good enough to enable Belichick to release veteran Otis Smith on Monday.

It's still very hard to adequately assess the Patriot rushing defense when they cannot unveil their full array of packages because they are stuck playing future regular season opponents. Who's to say that the Patriots could have stopped a full array of Redskin offensive packages? In Steve Spurrier, they have a formidable offensive expert who only needs to prove himself in the pros. Spurrier doesn't really have the material to make Belichick nervous, but it is something to at least keep in the back of your mind.

As for the offense, Pass will likely not be cut and will be Fred McCrary's backup. That's about all you can glean from his performance. He's the Patriotic equivalent of Watson. Eye-popping average, but done completely against second and third units. Is this an indication of future greatness for Pass? Of course not.

The real litmus test was Smith against the first defensive unit, and to a slightly lesser extent, Faulk. Smith did average 5.2 yards per carry on six carries in the first half, while Faulk had only six yards on three carries. Of lesser import is Larry Centers, a pass catching specialist who ripped off runs of seven and six yards on the final drive of the half for a tidy 6.5 average. That's two carries from a guy who might wind up in Canton thanks to pass receiving. Again, the real litmus test was Smith.

And again, with a vanilla offense not designed to strike fear into Daniel Snyder, Smith did all right. Not great, but all right. Like Canidate, he did score a touchdown on a short run off the right side. McCrary led the way with a crunching block, and Smith blasted in literally untouched. If it behooves you to micro-compare, Smith went in on his touchdown standing up while Canidate barely crossed the goal line on his score while in the act of being tackled. You could call the battle between Canidate and Smith a dead heat, and that is certainly a plus for the Patriots.

Naturally, Belichick will look at comments like this, scoff at them, and run to his video projector to micro-compare, micro-analyze, micro-everything in order to get ready for a much tougher opponent Friday night. He'll find plenty to complain about and plenty of things to fix, and that's fine because that's his job.

But all lay football coaches out there who feel alarmed should hold their tongues for now. Things still go well with your deposed world champs. When you digest the game and look at everything at its face value, the Patriots didn't do all that bad.

In other words, don't "rush" to judgment.


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