Taking out Gates was vintage Belichick
Familiar defensive game plan one of several observations from Patriots' victory
Observations from the Patriots' 35-21 win over the Chargers:
1. Trademark Bill Belichick defensive plan. Safety Patrick Chung drew a tough assignment, shadowing tight end Antonio Gates in man-to-man coverage for most of the game, but Gates finished without a catch. There was a stretch when Chung left the game due to a hand injury (from 8:45 to play in the third quarter to 11:41 left in the fourth), which thrust others, including Sergio Brown and James Ihedigbo, into the role of covering Gates. But this was really about Chung and how he fared in man-to-man coverage. This was a vintage Belichick game plan, using players like defensive linemen Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis and taking them out of their rush to re-route Gates and be physical with him on the line of scrimmage. They got a jam on him to disrupt the timing and then went after the quarterback. That's a staple of a Belichick defense when he feels there is a great receiving tight end that can pose matchup problems. A quarterback expects a receiver to be at a certain position at a certain time, and this plan disrupts that timing and forces the quarterback to look for other targets. The one time Rivers threw to Gates was when Chung was out of the game in the third quarter. Ellis drove his man back so Rivers couldn't step into the throw, and Brown came up with the interception. It was a combination of game-planning by using a group of players to take away a player's best threat and the players executing it well.
2. Double trouble for opponents. When you look at the Patriots' offense, it's hard to find negatives. You have quarterback Tom Brady playing at such a high level. His 940 passing yards the first two weeks of the season are topped only by Phil Simms in NFL history when it comes to back-to-back games. Simms did it in '85, so Belichick was on the staff of both teams. There is another link, and it's with the tight ends. The Giants had Mark Bavaro, and I think Belichick has been looking for the next Bavaro for years. He's found him in Rob Gronkowski, an all-around tight end who can block and is an athletic receiver. He is the modern-day Bavaro -- the Belichick/Bill Parcells old-school tight end. Then you couple him with Aaron Hernandez, who is the new-age tight end, providing matchup nightmares with whoever attempts to cover him -- linebackers, safeties, whomever they got. It's just whether Brady wants to throw him the ball. If he does, Hernandez will catch it. I've compared him to Colts tight end Dallas Clark before. I know it's early in his career, but Hernandez has a realistic shot at being even better.
3. Wilfork and Mayo show why they're elite players. I was on "SportsCenter" last week with John Buccigross, and we were talking about the Patriots' defense and how it has struggled. One of the reasons mentioned was that they don't have any elite players. I was surprised by that statement and explained that I felt Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork were in that elite category. I think Sunday proved that Mayo and Wilfork are in the top three of their positions across the NFL. Mayo is starting to make plays that open eyes across the league, such as his fourth-down stop on Mike Tolbert on the goal line and his strip of Tolbert later in the game. Mayo is one of the best linebackers in the NFL; he just doesn't do a lot of dancing and doesn't have a lot of bravado. Then there was Wilfork being a presence in the middle and showing his athletic ability on the interception. That's something few men of his size can do.
4. Chemistry class for quarterbacks and receivers. The trio of Brady, Deion Branch and Wes Welker, and the chemistry and production they have, can't be matched across the AFC. It is special to watch, and you could see it after the game when Brady was standing next to Branch in the postgame news conference. The only units I could compare them are the Packers with Aaron Rodgers, Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley and the Saints with Drew Brees and his crop of receivers.
5. Koppen effect bears watching. There were a lot of positives with the offense, but there is one concern that bears watching. It's at center. How many Patriots followers were holding their breath when Chargers nose tackle Antonio Garay almost took out Brady's knee? He was lined up over Dan Connolly at center, and we've touched on this transition of Connolly replacing the injured Dan Koppen at that spot. Garay drove Connolly back, shoved him to the side and almost took out Brady, which would have ruined the Patriots' season. Connolly has done well at whatever they've asked him to do, but when there is a quality nose tackle in front of him -- such as Garay or Kyle Williams this week in Buffalo -- it is going to be a matchup disadvantage. It could pose problems in the future, because that's the quickest path to Brady, right over the center. Everyone was happy to see Brady get up after the hit, but it's important to look at how it happened and what it means for the future. I don't see something like that happening if Koppen is there.
6. Great weekend for Drew Bledsoe. I got to see an old friend and one of my favorite teammates this weekend: Drew Bledsoe. I was fortunate to be part of his Patriots Hall of Fame ceremonies on Saturday. The impact Bledsoe had on this organization can't be overstated. I believe his stamp on this franchise is still being felt today. When you walk into that facility, there is a sign on the door. One of the things it says is "put the team first." When it comes to the Patriots under Belichick, Bledsoe showed everyone what it meant to put the team first. His final year in New England, when Brady took over, the way that Bledsoe was unselfish and helped Brady start to become the quarterback he is now was the greatest example of a player putting the team first that I had ever seen. Drew moved on to Buffalo and Dallas, but I always remember the lesson he taught us on his way out of New England. Every time I walked in that door and saw that sign, I thought of Bledsoe and the example he set.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th-anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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