Commentary

Just a finesse team? Patriots hope not

New England prepares for good old smashmouth football versus Oakland

Updated: September 29, 2011, 12:48 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When Oakland Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain suggested earlier this week that the New England Patriots are "just a finesse team," he likely didn't mean it as harshly as it sounded. Unfortunately, there are few adjectives crueler in the football lexicon.

The insinuation is essentially that a finesse team is soft and masks its lack of toughness with a skilled approach (most often on the offensive side of the ball). For the better part of the past decade, including their march to three Super Bowl titles, the Patriots preyed on finesse teams, their toughness helping them overcome a general lack of star power.

[+] EnlargeRolando McClain
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireSo what was Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain implying when he called the Patriots "just a finesse team"?

Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts were a finesse team. Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams were a finesse team.

Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said as much. Dig back into the archives from New England's first Super Bowl triumph during the 2001 season and you'll find this quote from Bruschi after the Patriots stunned the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI: "It was force versus finesse, and something had to give. It wasn't too complicated. We just concentrated on hitting them hard."

McClain's comment suggests that, somewhere along the line, the Patriots went from being a lunch pail-toting group of overachievers with a smashmouth defense to some version of the Greatest Show on Turf, an offensive juggernaut with little defensive backbone.

It's a hard point to argue. In three of the last four seasons the Patriots have produced impressive offensive accomplishments, only to watch their postseasons end against ultra-physical defenses. New England's own defense, in recent times, has not been able to win an important game when quarterback Tom Brady hasn't thrived.

It's also worth noting that the Patriots are currently riding an 11-game regular-season streak of having scored 30 points or more per game, creeping up on the NFL record held by -- you guessed it -- those same Greatest Show on Turf Rams.

To be sure, the Patriots were rarely the best defense in the league when they won their three Super Bowl titles earlier this century. But they always prevented opponents from scoring points -- as hammered home by their points allowed in those seasons (2001: sixth in the league, 17 points per game; 2003: first, 14.9 ppg; and 2004: third, 15.5 ppg).

Through three games this season, the Patriots rank 27th in that same category, allowing 26.3 points per game. Heading to Oakland, New England will pack a defense that has allowed a league-worst 468.7 yards per game. Its offense had been able to mask those deficiencies until quarterback Tom Brady was intercepted four times last weekend in Buffalo.

Now the question is: Can the Patriots respond? Few seem to question whether the offense will get back on track; it's whether the defense will step up. Can the Patriots, as a whole, respond after a tough loss?

It won't be easy against this Raiders team. The adjectives most commonly assigned to the Raiders by Patriots players on Wednesday were "big" and "physical." Playing in front of the raucous "Black Hole" inside O.co Stadium won't make things any easier for New England.

Some, like McClain, might even say this year's matchup is finesse versus force.

It's almost assuredly a mere coincidence that Brady sheared his once-flowing locks this week in the wake of Sunday's loss in Buffalo and formally debuted a close crop Wednesday that better resembles the look he sported during New England's Super Bowl seasons.

But maybe McClain's comments -- innocuous as they might have been intended -- are resonating in the Patriots' locker room. You can still be a record-setting offense and not get dubbed a finesse team if the defense plays with an edge.

As the Patriots dove into their first day of practice in advance of Sunday's game in Oakland, players suggested they are ready for a smashmouth brand of football.

"It's what you play the game for," said offensive tackle Matt Light. "You gotta go out there and prove it. This is a good time to go out there and face a team like this. They're a little different than what we've seen over the last few weeks. Look, there's always challenges, and this is a good one."

Echoed veteran guard Brian Waters: "As an offensive line, you want that challenge. Any time you go against a physical defensive line, you want to match that intensity."

Sunday's trip to Oakland is a good chance for the Patriots to show their resiliency. It's a chance to show the mental toughness needed to overcome the speed bumps in any NFL season.

It's a chance to show the Patriots can still grind with one of the league's most physical teams. Yes, it's a chance to prove these Patriots don't deserve the "finesse" tag.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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