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2003 preview: Defense will be the key

2003 preview: Defense will be the key

The New England Patriots were so determined to improve their slow, aging defense they did something out of character: They spent big bucks in the free-agent market, signing linebacker Rosevelt Colvin (six years) and safety Rodney Harrison (six years).
This from a team that won the Super Bowl after the 2001 season with a roster laden with K-Mart specials.

Why the shift in philosophy? Simple: The Patriots had plenty of salary-cap space and, most important, their defense was ranked 23rd overall, 31st against the run. It's hard to believe a Bill Belichick-coached team could be so poor on defense, an indication the talent level had dropped.

Colvin, a multi-purpose linebacker, will help tremendously. Harrison, 30, is a big hitter, but he could be a liability in pass coverage. Aside from them, the only key newcomer is rookie defensive end Ty Warren. So yes, the Patriots got younger on defense, but not by a whole lot. The average age of the starters is 29.5. It could face another mediocre season, especially against the run.

The offense returns intact, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Fourth-year pro Tom Brady is a fine quarterback, but where are his weapons? The offense could be stagnant unless some of the young players -- see tight end Daniel Graham and wide receiver Deion Branch -- step into bigger roles.

Colvin could be a major force in Belichick's scheme. The reason: versatility. He can rush the passer (21 sacks the past two seasons for the Chicago Bears) and drop into coverage. With that kind of player at his disposal, Belichick will be able to disguise his defenses, moving Colvin around into different positions.

The Patriots didn't suffer any major losses. One starter, safety Tebucky Jones, was traded to the Saints. But Jones, a first-round pick from the previous regime, never was a good fit in the Belichick program.

Belichick says he wants to play a 3-4 defense, but he's missing a strong candidate at nose tackle. Warren was drafted in the first round to be a nose tackle, but he has been moved to end. If Belichick can't find a middle man, don't be surprised if he returns to a 4-3 scheme. ... Cornerback Otis Smith, 37, is a physical marvel, but his time could be running out. Free-agent addition Tyrone Poole could replace him. No. 2 pick Eugene Wilson also could figure in the mix. ... The special teams are solid, top to bottom, led by kicker Adam Vinatieri, who is Mr. Automatic. ... The Patriots could have one of the smallest receiving corps in the NFL. ... Brady's throwing shoulder bears watching -- it was separated late last season. ... Belichick received a two-year contract extension before training camp. He's under contract through 2006.

Coach Bill Belichick: "Our goal is to stop the run. To be a good defensive football team, we need to play the run better than we played last year. That is absolutely an objective."

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