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Friday, August 19, 2011
Admit it, the Patriots look primed

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

TAMPA -- The New England Patriots have played eight quarters of preseason football, and what's not to like?

They are loaded and balanced, and no surprise here, they're coached extremely well. The latest example of this trifecta came Thursday night when they jammed their foot on the accelerator from the opening kickoff and zipped past the overmatched Buccaneers -- a 10-win team last season -- in a convincing 31-14 win at Raymond James Stadium.

The Patriots led 21-0 after the first quarter and 28-0 at the half. That was the important part of the game, when both teams had their top players on the field, and New England looked like a well-oiled machine in all facets. So much for the lockout affecting the quality of football.

It's been two weeks now and the preseason scoreboard reads: Patriots 78, Opponents 26. Anyone unhappy about that drives a harder bargain than Bill Belichick.

 Stevan Ridley
Patriots running back Stevan Ridley wouldn't go down easily as Tampa Bay's Ashton Youboty held on tight in the second half on Thursday.

Where it all leads, no one truly knows. The preseason is not always an accurate barometer for what is to come in the regular season. Just ask the 2008 Detroit Lions, who went 4-0 in exhibition play only to follow it up with the first-ever 0-16 record. No one is saying the Patriots will be doing that anytime soon, but it's a reminder that reading too much into preseason football is tricky business.

So with that in mind, what more could the Patriots do to earn your confidence at this point?

What stands out over the last two weeks is how players are responding to coaching, from the top of the roster to the bottom. Last week against the Jaguars, coaches were impressed with how second-stringers kept their composure; when adjustments were drawn up on the sideline, they were executed on the field. The same mistakes weren't made twice. This week, coaches preached a fast start all week and the players responded.

"We definitely didn't do that last week," Belichick said. "I thought we had a little energy [this time]."

That player-coach synergy will, at the least, give the Patriots a chance to reach their lofty goals in 2011. It's something any successful team needs, and one aspect of it was on display for everyone to see in the first half Thursday night when Belichick pulled veteran receiver Chad Ochocinco off the field for what looked like a missed assignment on a Danny Woodhead run. The two had an animated conversation, with Belichick doing most of the talking.

Ochocinco, who played throughout the first half, took it to heart.

"Just coaching, back and forth, which I like, which I need," he explained of his sideline meeting with Belichick. "I need people to stay in my ear. I need Tom Brady, I need all of them. The more information I can absorb and become a sponge, and understand the system, the more comfortable I get, the more relaxed I am, the better I play."

While Ochocinco is pressing a bit, the rest of the first-unit offense looked in midseason form Thursday, even with first-round draft choice Nate Solder starting at left tackle. They took it right to Tampa.

"The thing that New England does just as well as anybody is their tempo. When you have a quarterback like [Brady], he's able to come out and control the tempo the way he was; he never lets you settle down and never lets you get going," Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris said. "They knew exactly what they wanted to do in every situation, and he was in complete control."

The pace was so fast that Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy looked across the line of scrimmage and said, "Um, Mr. Brady, can we line up?"

Seriously.

McCoy wasn't the only one impressed by what he saw. Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman called the Patriots a "Super Bowl-caliber team," noting how they "came out and really dictated this game."

"Early on in the preseason, you have to figure out a way to come out with that sort of enthusiasm, that sort of discipline that they were playing with," he said.

It starts with Belichick, who sets that tone with players. He had them in full pads for three straight days leading into the game, reminding them how it was a big week. The response had to be what he was hoping for, and it started right after the opening kickoff to the Buccaneers.

"I thought we stopped them with defense," Belichick said.

It's a defense that looks different from the unit that struggled to generate pressure in 2010. This unit lines up in a get-up-the-field 4-3 alignment, as opposed to last season's read-and-react 3-4, and attacks with reckless abandon. It forced the Buccaneers three-and-out on the first two drives, and soon enough it was 14-0. Score it a first-round knockout.

Linebacker Jerod Mayo, acknowledging that "Coach Belichick is doing different things with me," was all over the field Thursday night in totaling five tackles and two sacks. Veteran defensive end Andre Carter, one of the big offseason acquisitions, brought consistent pressure off the right side. There were tackles for loss and well-schemed blitzes.

It was dominating but, true to form, the Patriots weren't patting themselves on the back after the strong performance. Under Belichick, things can always be done better.

"We have a lot of work to do to sharpen up, but I think we played competitively," Belichick said. "Hopefully clean up a few loose ends and continue to take another step in our preparation for the regular season."

So far, so good.

Two games into the preseason, there is a lot to like when it comes to the Patriots.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.