With just three days left before the 2001 regular season begins, Head Coach Bill Belichick tried to help his team prepare for the unexpected.
On Thursday the Patriots worked on plays like onside kicks, safeties, fumble returns and squib kicks. Such plays can come up on the fly in games and can be difficult to prepare for, particularly early in the season when teammates are still getting a feel for one other.
"One of the things I really tried to emphasize to the team this morning was the importance of situational play in the opening game," Belichick said. "When we see the highlights Sunday night or Monday from the games, there will be some unusual plays from opening week. There will be certain situations that will come up that are really hard to plan for."
Belichick knows from last year's opener how situational plays can impact a game. Most of the scoring, including all three Tampa Bay touchdowns, in the 21-16 New England loss was tied to turnovers, special teams play or mental gaffes.
The Patriots used a big play on the opening kickoff to get out to a 3-0 lead. Safety Larry Whigham forced a fumble by Tampa's Karl Williams, and Kato Serwanga recovered the ball at the Buccaneers 28. The turnover resulted in a 30-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri, which put New England in front 3-0.
After Mike Alstott's first of two touchdowns put New England in a 7-3 hole, Troy Brown gave the Patriots their second lead of the game with a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown.
That was the high point. At the end of the first half Shaun King led a two-minute drill that had the Buccaneers at the Patriots 8-yard line with little more than 30 seconds left. King faked a spike and hit Reidel Anthony for a touchdown behind the New England defense, which was caught standing still.
The winning margin for Tampa Bay was provided by Alstott's second touchdown run. That scoring drive was set up when safety John Lynch recovered a Kevin Faulk fumble and returned it to the Patriots 24-yard line.
Glenn appeal in Foxboro
Wide receiver Terry Glenn's grievance hearing concerning his placement on the reserve/left camp list began in Foxborough Thursday. Glenn and his lawyers are seeking to overturn the team's decision to put him on the list in hopes of getting him reinstated after his four-game suspension from the league for violating the substance abuse policy is finished.
With the hearing in its early stages, Belichick did not have much news on the situation. If asked, he will testify, but he is trying to go about his normal schedule as much as possible.
"My main focus is our game in three days in Cincinnati," Belichick said. "I knew when this action was taken back in training camp there was a chance that there would be some kind of challenge to it. If I am called upon to take part in that, I will. I want to put most of my time and energy into getting ready for Cincinnati."
Cincinnati has a potentially explosive offense, but the Patriots also face a tough task in stopping the Bengals pass rush.
The linebacking corps of Takeo Spikes, Brian Simmons and Steve Foley is not the best-known group, but all three are young, talented players. Spikes and Simmons were both taken in the first round of the 1998 draft, while Foley went in the third round that year. Having all three in the lineup should give the team a boost. The Patriots running backs will have to help out in blitz pickup because the Bengals try to bring constant pressure with a zone blitz.
"That will be a big challenge this week because [Cincinnati] likes to bring all three of their linebackers," Belichick said. "Foley comes a lot, and they like to bring Spikes and Simmons as well. Foley plays end on third down, so he has a lot of pass rush snaps in the game anyway in addition to his blitzing."
In addition to the backers, Cincinnati added defensive tackle Tony Williams to the line, where he is next to Oliver Gibson inside. The presence of Williams helped Gibson post a team-high three sacks in the preseason. In all, the Bengals had 15 sacks in four preseason games.
The one spot of the Cincinnati defense that does not look very strong is the secondary, where cornerbacks Artrell Hawkins and Rodney Heath and safeties Cory Hall and Chris Carter are listed as the probable starters. Carter is a Patriots castoff who landed with the Bengals just before the 2000 season. After playing only playing special teams for the first five games of the year, he started the final 10 games of the season and finished fourth on the team in tackles.
Carter had a decent preseason after switching from strong safety to free safety. Despite missing most of the third game with a sore hamstring Carter had two interceptions and a fumble recovery.