Commentary

Pats' focus needs to be on AFC East

New England would benefit from switching things up on offense against Panthers

Updated: December 11, 2009, 12:02 PM ET
By Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi | ESPNBoston.com

Join the conversation every week as former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down New England's upcoming game. This week, it's the Patriots hosting the Panthers on Sunday.

Mike: There has been no shortage of news this week surrounding the Patriots, and not all of it is good for the team. It seems like the place to start is Wednesday's news about Derrick Burgess, Gary Guyton, Randy Moss and Adalius Thomas being sent home for the day when they were late for the 8 a.m. team meeting.

Tedy: Sending players home for being late for a meeting is a very drastic form of discipline. This isn't the type of discipline that happens if it were a first-time occurrence. I'm not saying the four players are multiple offenders, but this can be frustration coming to a head. Coach Belichick might recognize that he has a young team and maybe there are some players that don't have it figured out on what they should be doing at this point of the season, not knowing how to prepare properly or do what needs to be done to end a losing streak.

In all honesty, why would some of these players know how to do this? They've had so much success in the time they have been there that somebody needs to teach them what it takes to get out of a losing streak. That's coming early to meetings or staying late after you're done. You work throughout the day, from sunup to sundown, as it is. But to achieve the success the Patriots want, you have to be there earlier than sunup and stay later than sundown. These are the things that are common practice within the facility.

This is a sign that coach Belichick is saying you are not only late for a meeting, but you should have been here an hour before anyway. It's a strong message from the head coach to everyone on that team in terms of what he expects from players here on out to finish strong and try to win the AFC East.

Mike: From what I understand, Belichick had just addressed the team on Monday and talked about the importance of commitment and arriving early and staying late. So that adds some context to the situation and might help explain, when four players were late just two days later, why he sent them home.

Tedy: Coach Belichick doesn't care who you are, what you've done in the past, how many Pro Bowls you've been to. He only cares for the present. What effort are you putting forth for the team right now? What type of example are you setting now? What type of leader are you now? I know he clichés the media to death -- talking about moving on to the next opponent -- but that's the way he really sees it, and that's how he wants his players to see it. He will treat those players accordingly, based on what they show him on a day-to-day basis.

Mike: How do you think it will unfold with Burgess, Guyton, Moss and Thomas on Sunday? Do they play?

Tedy: I think the way the week goes will be up to them. Do they want to let it fester within themselves and be bitter about it the whole week and not put forth the extra effort in practice and meetings? Or do they come back strong, with a good attitude? Coaches will notice that. It's totally up to the players. You can come back Thursday and Friday and do some extra work Saturday.

Mike: In the big picture, do you think this team still has a chance to get where it wants to go?

Tedy: I know better than anyone the talent that this team has and the quality of coaching this team receives. But in reality, I think the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets are playing better football right now.

At this moment, the Patriots are stumbling. There was the message from Tom Brady, which was essentially, "Sometimes we fight, sometimes we don't fight very hard." They have been outscored in the second half of their losses 72-24. They haven't won on the road. Players are late for meetings. These aren't the issues you want to deal with in December. Since they are dealing with it now, it takes away some of the focus of winning and beating the Carolina Panthers. Without a Wednesday game-planning meeting, and going through practice with all the adjustments and working on first and second down, you're missing a huge part of the game plan, and now four players are behind.

I think coach Belichick feels like the message is more important at this point, even if that message benefits the team at another time. If it's snowing next year, players will remember what coach Belichick did about it. So looking at the big picture, the Jets have won two in a row, and the Dolphins are coming off their biggest win of the year and came from behind to do it. That's a huge confidence builder. Their momentum is upward, while the Patriots' momentum is headed in the other direction.

Patriots offense vs. Panthers defense

Mike: After the last two weeks, it looks like the Patriots' offense is heading in the wrong direction -- 17 points against the Saints and 21 against the Dolphins. They average 27.3 points per game on the season.

Tedy: This is always the time of year when teams make a concerted effort to re-establish the running game, when the weather gets colder and the forecast can be unpredictable. With Sammy Morris starting to look better against the Dolphins, with Laurence Maroney running hard, and with Fred Taylor closer to a return, this is a good week for the Patriots to focus on that.

[+] EnlargeSammy Morris
Doug Benc/Getty Images With Sammy Morris looking like he's rounding into form, Sunday's game might be a good time for the Patriots to establish their running game.

Then you look at the Carolina Panthers, and they are 26th in rushing yards allowed per game (133.3) and 30th in average yards per carry allowed (4.6) and it makes it even more of a prime opportunity. I think the Patriots need to look to the running game to establish some positive balance. Right now, it seems like a token effort to establish the running game -- you give it to Maroney, and give Sammy Morris his touches, but come the second half all this team is doing is throwing the ball. So I look to re-establishing the running game as a key this week against a Carolina Panthers defense that is not very good at defending it. The Patriots are always known to attack defenses' weaknesses.

Mike: Let's talk about some of the Panthers' personnel on defense.

Tedy: I think they have a pretty good inside linebacker in Jon Beason. He was big last week versus Tampa Bay with two interceptions. And defensive end Julius Peppers is a guy who can always cause trouble. The one thing I'd say about Peppers is that the Patriots have always done a good job of neutralizing one good rusher. This will be one of Matt Light's biggest challenges since his return.

Mike: When I look at this matchup, it sort of reminds me of the Falcons team that came in here Sept. 27. Like the Falcons, this Carolina defense is a bit smaller, so I can see what you are saying about the Patriots possibly trying to establish the run. That Falcons game was the one the Patriots felt confident enough in the run to go for it on fourth down in their own territory.

Tedy: The Panthers have smaller linebackers and they play Cover 2 a bunch. Chris Harris, one of their safeties, is another player to watch, as he's shown the ability to create turnovers. I think he said it himself recently that Carolina's defensive goal is to create three turnovers a game. That's what their mentality is; they want to go after the ball.

Mike: Speaking of turnovers, the Patriots have a plus-9 differential this season, tied for fourth in the NFL. The Panthers are minus-6, with a league-high 31 giveaways. I'm not sure how much that applies this week, though, as injured quarterback Jake Delhomme (18 interceptions) was a big part of that for Carolina.

Tedy: One other thought for the Patriots' offense in this matchup is with tight end Benjamin Watson. This has been one aspect that has been missing from the Patriots' offense -- a concerted effort to get Watson the ball.

There is an easy way to do that, and it's with the tight end screen, a play put in the game plan to specifically get him the ball. It's something the Patriots haven't shown much this year but is something in the team's history. You look at the Denver Broncos with coach Josh McDaniels and Daniel Graham is on the receiving end of tight end screens on a regular basis.

My thought is, let's get away from this Moss and Welker thing a bit and make defenses think a bit more. They should have to concern themselves with not only a running game but the threat that Watson might get the ball.

Mike: It will be interesting to see if first-year play-caller Bill O'Brien incorporates that. I think it's fair to say there have been some early growing pains in that area with O'Brien. Another aspect to touch upon is Tom Brady. He said Wednesday that he needs to play better and that seems like a fair self-analysis from him. I thought his interception on the pass to Randy Moss early in the fourth quarter was one of his worst throws of the season. It's been unusual to see him making such critical mistakes in crucial moments.

Tedy: I don't necessarily think he is making that many more mistakes; it's just that his past mistakes were overshadowed a bit more because of all the success the team was having. It used to be that he could throw an interception and the defense would often pick him up and get a three-and-out, so the interception wasn't such a big deal. This year, everything is accentuated more. While Tom played lights-out in 2007, he had mistakes too. The difference was that the team could compensate better for those mistakes.

Now it's a team that can't win on the road and has a young defense that has struggled in the last 3-4 weeks. Because of that, every mistake is going to be magnified a bit more because those mistakes can quickly turn into points for the other team. It now comes down to the fact that points are at a premium now. Games are going to be close. You have to assume that these blowouts aren't going to happen anymore, so when you have an opportunity to put points on the board, you have to come away with a field goal. You can't be going into the red zone and coming away with nothing.

Patriots defense vs. Panthers offense

Mike: This looks pretty straightforward.

Tedy: When you go up against Carolina, the first thought is stopping the run. If you can do that, you're going to have success. Whether it's DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart, both running backs are very good.

For the Patriots, a big part of this week will be "know the runner." Stewart is more of a physical in-between-the-tackles runner, while Williams is quicker and faster. This reminds me a little bit of the Jets a few weeks back and how I was surprised that they didn't attempt to establish more of a running game, which is what they do best. I don't see Carolina making the same mistake. They'll pound the ball and just keep pounding. They have the third-best running game in the NFL (151.9 yards per game; 4.8 avg. per carry). And with a backup quarterback in Matt Moore, it makes sense to think they'll focus on the run that much more.

[+] EnlargeSteve Smith
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesReceiver Steve Smith's ability and toughness make him a constant threat for the Panthers.

Mike: They rank just 27th in passing yards per game, but from a personnel perspective, it seems like teams would be making a mistake to overlook a few of their pass catchers.

Tedy: Their starting receivers, Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad, are quality players. Smith is one of the toughest players in the league, mentality-wise. He plays angry. There are a handful of players who play angry, like they have something to prove every week, and if he feels like he's not getting the ball he's not afraid to say it to the quarterback or the coaches.

Pair him with Muhammad and you have two veteran receivers who have a lot of confidence in themselves. So while the Panthers want to get the running game going, they're probably also saying, The Patriots have a young secondary; let's not be afraid to take some shots.

Mike: The Panthers' offensive coordinator is Jeff Davidson, who coached with the Patriots from 1997 to 2004. Do you think it is looking too deep into the matchup to say that will be a factor?

Tedy: Jeff was the tight ends coach here, and I always thought he was a smart guy. So now you're coming into another game where the opposing offensive coordinator has a history with the Patriots. We all know what happened when Josh McDaniels came up with things that were extremely difficult to adjust to, so now we'll see if Jeff Davidson is that creative.

Mike: One other wild card to keep in mind here is that the Panthers could spring third-string quarterback A.J. Feeley against the Patriots. Feeley has had success throwing the ball against New England -- you were on the field in that game in 2007 against the Eagles when Feeley was terrific -- so I'm sure the Patriots aren't overlooking that possibility.

Tedy: He was very good that night. When you look at this from the big picture for the Patriots' defense, this is another step in the growth process. Losing three out of four, I don't care how young you are, you're going to learn from it and get experience from it. Breaking this losing streak would accelerate the maturing process for them. I think this is a bigger challenge to the defense than a lot of people think. It's a late-season game, in December in the Northeast, against a physical running team with two established receivers. They'll be tested from the front seven to the defensive backs.

Mike: Let's wrap this up, Tedy. We've touched on leadership and its importance. This is a time when the leaders have to shine if the Patriots are to turn things around.

Tedy: The Patriots haven't looked good the last three weeks, and I think everyone sees it; they recognize what the problems are. They also have in-house drama that they are dealing with. Right now, they aren't playing the best football in the AFC East. They need to worry about their divisional battle first and foremost because there is a legitimate chance they could lose the division.

When you win your division, it's a huge accomplishment. It isn't the AFC Championship or the Super Bowl, but you take pride in knowing you are still the class of the division, a step above the Jets, Dolphins and Bills. That's where the focus needs to be right now, because the Jets and Dolphins are playing good football.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

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