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Sunday, August 28, 2011
Can Patriots take the heat?

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

DETROIT -- The New England Patriots' performance Saturday night was like a flashback to some of their most painful losses in recent memory, the only difference that it was of the preseason variety.

Take your pick.

It had shades of Super Bowl XLII, when the New York Giants overwhelmed the offensive line with relentless pressure. One could see a bit of last year's playoff loss to the New York Jets, as well as the 2009 playoff setback to the Baltimore Ravens. Ditto for the 2011 regular-season blowout in Cleveland.

Brady
With the Lions applying an aggressive rush, Tom Brady was kept off balance for much of Saturday's Patriots loss.

In each of those games, the opponent found a way to neutralize what the Patriots do best, knocking a potent passing game off its rhythm with an aggressive rush that made life uncomfortable for quarterback Tom Brady.

Not every team will have such success -- the first two preseason games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the most recent evidence of that -- but in the aftermath of the Lions' effective approach one question comes to mind: When opponents paralyze the passing attack, do the Patriots have what it takes to reinvent themselves on the fly?

The Patriots mixed in a few more multiple tight end, compactly aligned packages early Saturday when it became clear that the offensive line was having a difficult time, but overall, the offensive approach didn't change much. It still featured a lot of spread sets with Brady in the shotgun (22 dropbacks in the first half, 12 rushes).

Part of that might have been based on personnel evaluations and the desire to work on that aspect of the offense as receiver Chad Ochocinco transitions into the mix. Had this been a regular-season matchup, perhaps there would have been more in-game adjustments, a shift to heavier alignments and power running.

This seems to be a balance the Patriots sometimes struggle to strike on offense. They naturally want the ball in the hands of Brady, their best player. Any time he hands off, it could be considered a win for the opposition's defense.

But when the offensive line has a bad night -- and Saturday was certainly one of them across the board against a Lions line that was without two of its top players in Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nick Fairley -- Brady looks like a run-of-the-mill NFL quarterback. Without better protection up front, no quarterback is going to have success.

So now the spotlight shines brighter on the Patriots' big guys up front. Veteran left tackle Matt Light played the first two series Saturday and looked rusty, understandable since he was on the field for the first time this preseason (he is coming back from offseason shoulder surgery). He should improve, giving more time for rookie Nate Solder -- who looked overmatched at times Saturday -- to develop.

On the opposite side, second-team All-Pro Sebastian Vollmer had an uncharacteristically off night. It was a performance that is more the exception than the rule.

Few question the quality of All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins, and center Dan Koppen, while occasionally struggling with bigger nose tackles, is a "glue" guy in the middle whose rapport with Brady is an often overlooked but vital part of the offense.

That brings us to right guard, a spot long held down by now-retired Stephen Neal that is now the biggest question mark. The issue showed up Saturday because that's where Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh did the bulk of his damage, first working over starter Dan Connolly, then blowing past replacement Rich Ohrnberger after Connolly left with a right ankle injury.

As teams form their final 53-man rosters in the coming week and trade talks heat up, this is an area the Patriots could target for some help.

Meanwhile, the running game should get a boost when rookies Shane Vereen (second round) and Stevan Ridley (third round) return to action. They both missed Saturday's game, basically leaving the Patriots with just BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead to turn to, which looked a lot like 2010. There was a reason the Patriots aggressively targeted Vereen and Ridley high in the draft, so they are positioned to be difference-makers.

But are the Patriots willing to reinvent the attack by turning to the ground when the passing game is knocked off its rhythm? And if they are willing, are they capable of pulling it off?

Those are questions to ponder after watching the becoming-too-familiar script that unfolded Saturday night.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.