After 2 bad postseasons, Patriots make changes

Bill Belichick was the NFL’s coach of the year. Tom Brady was

the most valuable player. The New England Patriots had the best

record and scored the most points.

And for the second straight year, they were eliminated in their

first playoff game.

That’s what happens when you have a defense that struggles on

third down and can’t come up with big turnovers that can change the

momentum.

So Belichick loaded up on pass rushers with Shaun Ellis, Andre

Carter and Mark Anderson and run stuffer Albert Haynesworth and

went to a defensive approach that defies conventional

description.

3-4, 4-3 or some other variation that will keep the offense

guessing?

Chances are that will change from play to play.

”I feel comfortable,” said star linebacker Jerod Mayo, who has

been freed up to do more things. ”I’m going into my fourth year.

Coach Belichick is doing different things with me so whatever it

ends up being I’m willing to do, whether it be making the big plays

or just making a bunch of tackles.”

Carter, the seventh overall draft pick in 2001 who spent the

past five years with the Washington Redskins, was disruptive in a

31-14 preseason win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With his height,

long arms and athleticism, he provides qualities the Patriots have

lacked.

”It’s always great to be multidimensional in any aspect,

whether it’s stopping the run or getting after the passer,” he

said. ”That’s something I’ve always prided myself off of since

I’ve played this sport and I just continued to develop my

game.”

Last season, the Patriots were 14-2.

But they allowed the eighth most yards in the 32-team league.

Even worse was the defense’s play on third downs – the worst in the

NFL, giving up first downs on 47.1 percent of them – although

injuries and inexperience proved costly.

That dipped a bit to 46 percent in the 28-21 playoff loss to the

New York Jets. A year earlier, it was an abysmal 63 percent in a

33-14 playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

Cornerback Devin McCourty, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie

last season, is excited to see an improved pass rush that produced

two sacks against Tampa Bay and caused quarterbacks to hurry their

throws.

”The pass rush and the secondary, they go hand in hand,” he

said. ”We can’t be a good secondary without a good pass rush and

they can’t be good at getting after the quarterback if we can’t

cover anybody.”

Belichick also wants his defense to attack more rather than wait

and react to what the offense does.

”Any football player that’s aggressive loves to attack,” nose

tackle Vince Wilfork said, ”but I was always told when a coach

gives you leeway to just go make a play, you better make it

count.”

Brady usually does. That’s how the Patriots won three Super

Bowls.

But since the last title, they’ve played in just one in six

years and lost that to the New York Giants in the 2007 season.

Now Brady has a new weapon, Chad Ochocinco, to go with two other

dangerous veteran wide receivers, Wes Welker and Deion Branch.

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are coming off outstanding

rookie seasons at tight end. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny

Woodhead emerged as a productive rushing tandem. And the offensive

line, now that left guard Logan Mankins has a new six-year

contract, is a veteran group.

Add to that first-round draft pick Nate Solder, a tackle from

Colorado, and the line has quality depth.

”He’s done a great job. He came in. He had all the basics of

the plays down,” Mankins said of Solder. ”So he was ready to move

on.”

Brady has the supporting cast and is coming off a brilliant

season with 36 touchdown passes, second most in his career, and

four interceptions, the fewest he’s had in a full season.

But his last two playoff games haven’t been nearly as good.

Against Baltimore, he lost a fumble and threw two interceptions

on his first three possessions and the Ravens rolled to a 24-0 lead

after one quarter. Brady finished with 23 completions in 42

attempts for 154 yards with three sacks.

Against New York, he threw an interception on his first series,

then couldn’t rally the Patriots from deficits of 14-3 at halftime

and 21-11 early in the fourth quarter. He was even outplayed by

Mark Sanchez.

But in the recent exhibition against the Bucs, he led the

Patriots to four touchdowns on the first four drives with scoring

passes on the first two.

”We got the ball, we got it moving, made some good runs and

made the plays in the red area we needed to,” Brady said. ”But

(there are) still too many things where we need to do a better

job.”