Back to Basics
Having abandoned the offense that brought them success, the
slumping Patriots need to reestablish the run
Three weeks ago, when their offense was strafing the league for
38 points a game, everything the Patriots did was cutting edge.
Tom Brady passed on 68% of the downs in an opening-night win over
Pittsburgh. Two weeks later New England threw 70% of the time in
a 41-38 shootout victory over Kansas City. At the time offensive
coordinator Charlie Weis said, "This isn't old school, where you
say, 'This is what we do. Come and stop us.' Now, we figure a
game plan depending on who we're playing. If it's not working, we
don't wait till halftime. We'll adjust after a couple of series."
But what happens when the adjustments aren't effective? In their
last three games the Patriots have scored 14 points or fewer,
five touchdowns in all. Most shocking is what transpired during a
28-10 loss to the Packers in Foxboro on Sunday. Against a Green
Bay defense playing without five injured starters, New England
was totally out of sync. Now, nothing's working on offense for
the defending Super Bowl champs, and coach Bill Belichick,
speaking in measured but adamant tones after the game, said, "We
are going to start all over."
With a bye week to get retooled for a tough upcoming stretch, the
Patriots might want to consider these changes.
--Stop making the games passathons. Brady wouldn't have lasted
until the sixth round of the 2000 draft if he'd been the most
talented and strongest-armed passer. He was drafted because of
his ability to manage a game, which is exactly what he did down
the stretch last season. The linemen, plodders for the most part,
aren't suited to pass-block 45 times a game. And when about 15 of
the passes go deep, trouble hits: In the last 10 quarters Brady
has thrown seven interceptions.
--Make Antowain Smith a go-to guy again. Last season the Patriots
ran on 49% of their snaps. This year they're running only 35% of
the time, even though Smith is averaging 4.5 yards a carry. "When
you know [the pass] is coming," Packers cornerback Bryant
Westbrook says, "you can put yourself in position to upset the
passing game." That's why the Patriots will almost certainly turn
to the run more in their last 10 games. Like most backs, Smith
needs work--and that means getting more than the 14 carries a game
he's averaging this season.
After their bye week the schedule is a killer. Denver is up at
home, followed by a brutal three-game road trip, to Buffalo,
Chicago and Oakland. The Patriots had better get things
straightened out. Otherwise they'll be playing meaningless games
Eddie George Back in Stride
Remember The Titan?
Something had been bugging four-time Pro Bowl running back Eddie
George, but he says it wasn't his health. (He's fit after turf
toe limited him to a disappointing 939 yards rushing last year.)
Nor was it the absence of All-Pro lineman Bruce Matthews, who
retired in the off-season. Rather, it was the Titans' offensive
approach that bothered George. On its way to a 1-4 start
Tennessee fell behind early in games and then abandoned the run.
When George did get the ball, there were no holes to run through.
"I'm hearing, 'Is he done?'" George said on Sunday about rumors
of his demise.
So last week the 29-year-old George looked at game tapes from the
1999 and 2000 seasons, during which he rushed for more than 2,800
yards total. He put together a video of about 20 of his classic
power runs, and he called his linemen and fullbacks together last
Friday after practice. As the tape played, George told his
teammates, "Let's believe in what we do. This is our essence! We
dominate the line! Don't believe the hype that you're a bad line
because Bruce is gone."
Suitably emboldened--and with an early 13-0 lead--George and his
blockers played traditional Titans football on Sunday. George
carried 31 times for 113 yards and a touchdown, caught three
passes for 27 yards and another score, and the Titans held the
ball for 37:43 in a 23-14 win over the Jaguars. The most
encouraging sign for Tennessee fans was that George again looked
like the powerful slasher who battled for extra yards and was
brimming with confidence as he returned to the huddle. "I saw it
right away today," said Jacksonville defensive end Tony Brackens.
"He ran for seven or eight yards on one of his first carries, and
then he popped right up. He had that confidence all day."
In the weeks immediately following this Sunday's bye, the Titans
will face three defenses that are less than formidable against
the run--the Bengals', Colts' and Texans'--so look for Tennessee
to keep riding its healthy horse. "It's not too late for us,"
George says. "We just have to believe in what we do and just do
Ravens Really Miss Lewis
How valuable is linebacker Ray Lewis to the Ravens? Before 0-2
Baltimore faced Denver on Sept. 30, he made a fiery pregame
speech, then had 18 tackles and an interception in the Ravens'
34-23 upset. The next week Baltimore was routing Cleveland 20-0
midway through the third quarter when Lewis left with a
partially dislocated left shoulder. The Browns scored 21 points
in the last 21 minutes, but Baltimore hung on 26-21. On Sunday
in Indianapolis, the Ravens couldn't make enough plays without
Lewis and lost 22-20. "It was different out there," cornerback
Chris McAlister said. "Not hearing his voice. Not seeing him
making plays. We played well without him, but we need him back."
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COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER Bubba Franks put the Pack up 21-3 over the Patriots with a third-quarter TD reception.