Against the Bears last Sunday, the Patriots were without the services of a pair of defensive linemen: veterans Mike Wright, who's been out since the Colts game with a concussion, and Myron Pryor, whose back problem has nagged him throughout the season.
During the contest, two others went down with injuries. Gerard Warrentweaked a knee in the first half, but was able to return later in the second, and on the Bears' lone touchdown in the fourth quarter, second-year man Ron Bracesuffered a concussion and did not return.
That meant that rookies Brandon Deaderickand Kyle Love saw additional reps than perhaps the game plan had called for that day. Fortunately for the Patriots, Deaderick and Love have contributed regularly as part of the d-line's by-design personnel rotation this year. In Deaderick's case, he even has several starts to his credit. So, being thrust into action wasn't anything new for these young players, who may be called upon more in coming weeks if these injuries prove serious.
Warren offered them a few veteran words of advice.
"Hey … it's time to grow up. Simple as that," he declared. "It's about being prepared and ready to go."
What was somewhat surprising was the immediate dividend paid by newcomer Eric Moore. Signed Dec. 3, Moore was inactive for the Monday night game against the Jets and saw his first action as a Patriot in Chicago. He registered a 10-yard sack and forced fumble of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, then dropped a Bears ball carrier for a five-yard loss.
"For some reason, the Lord put me in a position to make the play and I made it," Moore said right afterward. "I'm thankful. I'm grateful for the opportunity."
Good news for Moore, perhaps, but not necessarily good news for New England that, just as this young defense appears to be maturing, it is beset with injuries up front. Further evidence that this is a concern to the Patriots coaching staff came last Wednesday, when the team signed veteran defensive lineman Louis Leonard.
Both Moore and Leonard are in their fourth NFL seasons and have bounced around several times with various teams. Moore (6-4, 268) is more of an edge rusher, while Leonard (6-4, 325) seems more suited to an interior position.
Moore insisted that his performance against Chicago was due to less to instinct and more to his intense preparation in a short period of time. Leonard, meantime, could have an advantage in that he is a "pipeline" player. Having played collegiately at Fresno State for head coach Pat Hill, a former assistant under Bill Belichick, gives him the advantage of having at least a foundational familiarity with the Patriots system (he was also a teammate of James Sanders, Logan Mankins, and Ryan Wendellat Fresno).
"The big thing for most of those guys, really – defensive lineman – is to be able to play with good technique, with good leverage, defeat run blocks or defeat pass blocks and rush the passer," Belichick remarked.
"So, if you can play with good technique within the framework of assignments which, again, it's not a massive assignment situation there. You have to know where to line up on certain defenses and who's the contained player and who's the cutback player and so forth, but again, on a relative scale, that's manageable. It comes down to playing good technique and reading your keys and understanding where you're supposed to be on certain plays and he did a good job of that."
Warren put the situation in more blunt terms.
"You gotta get on board and get on board fast," he said with a sideways grin. "As you can see, Eric picked it up pretty quick and came in and made a contribution."
Much is often made of the need for continuity along the offensive line to maintain a consistent level of performance from the unit as a whole. But that's not necessarily the case on the other side of the ball, as the Patriots have demonstrated this season. The fact, then, that New England has employed a rotation system along the d-line all year may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
As Warren put it, "I just call it a band of brothers, guys sticking together, motivating each other, just trying to go out and put ourselves in the best situation to play."
Leonard, who battled an ankle injury that kept him out of action most of last year, proclaimed himself fit and ready for action here in New England.
"I'm feeling really good. I've been trying to maintain football shape. But you can never get in football shape without playing football."
He might get a chance to do plenty of that in the days ahead.
Wed12/15 Practice Notebook
For news and notes from Wednesday's practice, please visit the PFW Blog.