Sunday, October 18, 2009

Patriots still looking for big plays

(This story appeared only in the print edition of the Union Leader.)

Bill Belichick hasn’t missed a chance this week to tweak his quarterback – and to drive home a point: The Patriots haven’t opened up the field the way they once did.

Two years ago at this time, the explosive Patriots offense already had three completions of 40 or more yards. One year ago at this time, even with Matt Cassel under center, the Patriots had two completions of 40 or more yards.

So far this season? Zero.

Brady’s 36-yard completion to Randy Moss against Denver last Sunday – the only reception Moss had all afternoon – was the longest pass the quarterback has completed this season. Wes Welker, a slot receiver who has more than 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last two seasons, hasn’t yet caught a pass for a gain of more than 20 yards – let alone 40.

“There’s only one way to do it, and that’s to go out there and work on it,” Brady said. “You’ve got to hit them. That’s why you play quarterback. You’ve got to go out and the complete the balls that are there when we have opportunities down the field. You don’t get them often, and when you get them, you have to really take advantage of them.”

The most egregious miss came on a third-and-12 in Sunday’s first quarter, a deep pass on which Moss was all alone in the back of the end zone. Brady overthrew him. It wasn’t all that close, either.

Those are the types of plays that have some wondering if doctors removed Brady’s ability to throw the deep ball while they were operating on his knee.

“We hit them in practice,” the quarterback said. “In practice, everyone looks pretty good all the time. … It’s really a matter of how it comes down on game day and the level of execution. I’ve got to do a better job of hitting those deep ones.”

But it’s not just about Brady.

“It’s all of us,” said Sam Aiken, pressed into duty as the third wide receiver early this season. “It’s all 11 that’s on the field. It’s not just one person. It’s all of us.”

WHEN THE TITANS RUN: Don’t question Chris Johnson on his speed. The former first-round pick out of East Carolina ran a 4.24-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Draft combine 18 months ago, the fastest time at that workout and more than 0.05 seconds faster than any player ran at last April’s workout.

“I guess I’m the fastest guy in the NFL right now,” Johnson said.

It’s not as if other players are challenging him to footraces, either.

“They do, but they be playing around,” Johnson said. “They’re really not serious about the situation. I don’t think anybody is serious or ever really put anything up that they could beat me or anything like that.”

Johnson rushed for more than 1,200 yards a year ago, and he had the full attention of opposing defenses even before his 197-yard outburst against the Houston Texans in Week 2.

“Even going into that game, defenses concentrate on me by putting eight or nine men in the box, hoping we don’t pass, double teaming me and all that,” he said. “A lot of guys are focused and keying in on me right now, but I can’t use that as an excuse. I just have to still make plays I can make.”

WHEN THE TITANS PASS: The Patriots always prepare for every player on a team’s active roster so as not to be unprepared should that player be put in a key position in a game.

“There’s always the possibility that a practice-squad player could come up as well,” said Belichick, ever the worrier.

This week, though, there’ll be special focus on Tennessee backup quarterback Vince Young. Titans coach Jeff Fisher announced after last Sunday’s game that veteran Kerry Collins would be his starting quarterback again this week, and “I’ve not wavered off that,” Fisher said in a conference call with reporters this week.

But with a team as desperate as the winless Titans, the Patriots will have to prepare for all possibilities. The added challenge? Collins is a traditional drop-back quarterback while Young is a college-style scrambler built more like a fullback than a quarterback, and he’s not easy to bring down once he gets going in the open field.

“It’s two different people when you talk about Collins and Young,” Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. “When he’s in the game, of course, it’s a different approach. But our plays don’t change. It’s just a different mindset from a defensive standpoint.”

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN: As Patriots running backs have fallen by the wayside – Fred Taylor remains out with an ankle injury and Laurence Maroney remains plagued by ineffectiveness – more and more has fallen on the shoulders of Sammy Morris.

The veteran was used exclusively as a fullback in the season opener and had just two carries in the Patriots’ Week 2 loss to the New York Jets. Against the Broncos last Sunday, though, Morris had 17 carries for 68 yards. He also had as a pair of receptions – including one for 35 yards.

It was a year ago just at this time, in fact, that Morris had his most productive game of the season: He carried the ball 16 times for 138 yards, including a four-yard touchdown run, in a romp over the Broncos in mid-October of last year.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS: After left tackle Matt Light left last Sunday’s game with a knee injury, Belichick opted to insert rookie Sebastian Vollmer into that spot – and his offense proceeded to run the ball on six straight snaps. The sequence seemed to be designed to give Vollmer a chance to get his feet under him, a chance to get up to speed in his first significant action in an NFL game.

Should Light be unable to go again on Sunday – he was listed as doubtful on Friday’s injury report – the Patriots will have to decide whether to play it safe again with their rookie left tackle. For Brady to connect on his deep passes, he’ll need a little extra time in the pocket, and he doesn’t yet have the comfort level with Vollmer he has with Light.

Then again, right tackle Nick Kaczur could move across the line and give Vollmer a chance to ease into the starting lineup at left tackle – as much as going up against Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch qualifies as easing in.

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