Bruschi appears ready to take place at heart of D

Updated: September 8, 2006, 9:11 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Asked on Friday afternoon how much work linebacker Tedy Bruschi had done during practice earlier in the day, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick responded with a pithy but probably portending reply.

Tedy Bruschi
Bruschi

"Enough," Belichick said, simply.

Whether it was enough to land Bruschi back in the starting lineup Sunday -- or merely enough for him to play as a situational reserve in the season opener against the Buffalo Bills -- remains to be seen. But the indications are that Bruschi, who returned to practice Thursday for the first time since breaking his right wrist early in training camp July 31 and having surgery Aug. 9 to repair the injury, is ready to play.

How much Bruschi plays might not be known until the game begins, given the New England organization's penchant for cryptically guarding team injury reports as if they were matters of national security. But people close to Bruschi said Friday night that he almost certainly will play against the Bills, and they will not be surprised if he starts, even after having missed so much camp time and the entire preseason schedule.

If he does play, Bruschi will wear the removable cast he sported Thursday and Friday to insulate the broken scaphoid bone at the base of his right thumb. The cast would be padded, in accordance with NFL rules, and likely would not prohibit Bruschi from making plays.

Such comebacks, of course, are becoming second nature for the 11th-year veteran. Bruschi defied the odds last season by returning from a mild stroke suffered in February 2005 and a subsequent surgical procedure to repair a small hole in his heart. He spent the first six games in 2005 on the physically unable to perform list, then started the next nine contests before missing the season finale.

Bruschi, 33, finished the season with 72 tackles, two sacks, four passes defensed and a forced fumble.

Getting the versatile Bruschi back for Sunday's opener would represent a huge boost for the New England defense. The unit has struggled to fill the inside linebacker spots in its base 3-4 alignment and recently released Chad Brown and Monty Beisel, two veterans signed a year ago to help plug holes. For the second year in a row the Pats have had to switch Mike Vrabel, more effective on the outside, to an inside spot.

If Bruschi is ready to play Sunday, he could start alongside Vrabel. Or the New England coaches could move Vrabel back outside, to his more natural position, leaving Bruschi and Junior Seau, recently talked out of retirement, as the inside starters. The second scenario would probably relegate Tully Banta-Cain, who has been starting on the outside with Rosevelt Colvin, to situational pass-rush duty.

No matter what permutations might be entailed by Bruschi's return, Belichick will be more than happy to deal with them if it means getting the defense's most inspirational player back on the field.

"It's good to see him out there," Belichick said after the Friday practice.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

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