Foxborough, Mass. – Based on the comments coming out of Gillette Stadium, Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals will present plenty of challenges for the New England Patriots.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick held his first press conference of the week Tuesday as his team prepares for the Cardinals, extolling many of the virtues of the Arizona team that nearly upset the St. Louis Rams last week before falling 17-10. The Cardinals, who tied for the NFL's worst record at 4-12 last season, entered the 2004 season under new head coach Dennis Green having changed 13 of their 22 starters from a year ago.
"This is a pretty impressive young team," Belichick said. "I think coach [Dennis] Green has done a really good job getting things going probably on the way to the way he wants them to be down there. I thought they played a real solid game against the Rams, especially on special teams. They had a 90-yard interception return called back on a close call, and had that not gone against them it probably would have been a little different story in St. Louis."
On a day that NFL teams normally take off, the Patriots began preparing for the Cardinals Tuesday and will hold three days of practices this week before traveling to Arizona on Thursday, two days earlier than usual. The unique scenario of having nine days off between games gives the Patriots a full week of practice before traveling, as well as a practice on Friday, allowing players extra time to acclimate to the Arizona heat and time changes.
Because Arizona has only played five games under Green – four during the preseason and the opener against St. Louis – it leaves the Patriots coaching staff with very little to look at in preparation for the Cardinals. Looking ahead to this dilemma, the coaching staff spent time during the offseason viewing tape of the Minnesota Vikings under Green for tendencies he may have brought to the Cardinals.
"The only thing we could look at was what he had done the last time he was coaching," Belichick said. "We checked those things out in the offseason, and are aware of some of the tendencies and some of the types of things he liked to do when he was with the Vikings. Some of those elements still appear to be in place, I would say some of them have definitely changed.
"There's only so much film you can look at. There just hasn't been a lot of exposure to them. Some of the things that you can see last year, they just are doing them differently this year. We could use a little bit of extra time against them because we don't know them very well."
Because the Cardinals are somewhat of an unknown under Green, Belichick said the team would also focus on the internal problems that were exploited in the opener against the Colts. While some might suggest the high-powered Colts and Cardinals are on opposite ends of the NFL spectrum, Belichick has found similarities between the two.
"I think there are a lot of similarities between the Colts and the Cardinals, which goes back to my feeling that we need to fix a lot of things that we didn't do well in the game Thursday night," Belichick said. "I think there's a lot of elements of the game there that are similar. I think that there are a lot of similarities in kind of the makeup of the two teams, and some scheme similarities as well, even though the Colts are at one point in their development and the Cardinals are at another point."
One of the many new faces in Arizona under Green is that of rookie wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. The third overall pick in April's NFL Draft, Fitzgerald started in the season opener and led the Cardinals with 70 yards on four receptions. Although he has played in only two games this season – the preseason opener against Minnesota and last week's game against St. Louis – Fitzgerald has been an early focus of the Arizona offense without injured second-year receiver Anquan Boldin.
"He's going to be a challenge to cover wherever they put him – inside, outside – you name it," Belichick said. "He has real good ball skills. He runs excellent routes. He's a good target. He doesn't need a lot of room to be open because he has such good hands and extends for the ball so well – he can bring it in. He looks pretty good no matter where he is."
Fitzgerald isn't a new face to Green, though. A Minnesota native and two-time All American at the Academy of the Holy Angels High School in Minneapolis, Fitzgerald worked as a ball boy for Green during Vikings training camps as a youngster. Despite the relative lack of available film on Fitzgerald this season, veteran cornerback Ty Law is aware of his presence.
"The catches that he made the first play of the game – he went up top on guys – his hand-eye coordination is incredible. You knew that from the time you saw him in college on the highlights. He's showing just that in the film right now. He's going to be a good one for a long time to come, and you definitely can't sleep on him because he'll beat you."
Feeling the Heat
The temperature was 107 degrees yesterday in Tempe, Ariz., and early weather reports are placing Sunday's game-day temperature at Sun Devil Stadium near 100. Belichick essentially dismissed the hot weather as a factor in Sunday's game, saying players wouldn't be able to acclimate to the temperatures by arriving one day early. Several players talked about the Arizona heat from the comfortable confines of the locker room and shared various measures to combat the expected temperatures.
"It's obviously going to be hot, it's Arizona," Christian Fauria said. "It's like going down to Miami in September. I think it's also a mental thing. If you can deal with the mental aspect of it, I think you've won half the battle. With that, a lot of guys are trying to emulate what it's going to be like out there. I really don't think you can do it justice out here, so that's why I think mentally you have to be tough."
The official status of Law and running back Kevin Faulk won't be known until the initial injury reports of the week are released on Wednesday. Faulk has been away from the team following the death of his mother, Vivian, on Sept. 7, but also reportedly suffered a knee injury against Carolina in the Patriots third preseason game. At this time last week, Belichick was unwilling to characterize Faulk's injury, saying only he was "day-to-day." Law, who wasn't able to finish the season-opener against the Colts because of tightness in his leg, seemed optimistic Tuesday about his chances.
"I'm taking it day-by-day, but I'm looking forward to being able to play," Law said. "We'll see how it works out this week and hopefully I'll be ready to roll."
Sunday's game will feature a halftime tribute to former Cardinal Pat Tillman, an Army Ranger who was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. Players in all NFL games this week will wear Tillman's number 40 on the backs of their helmets, as the Cardinals are doing all season. … Belichick said Arizona running back Emmitt Smith "pound-for-pound is one of the strongest players in the league." Smith, 35, is entering his 15th NFL season. … Running back Rabih Abdullah, signed by the Patriots to the active roster on Saturday, will wear number 27. Offensive lineman Billy Yates, who was signed to the practice squad the same day, will wear 74. The Patriots currently have seven players on the practice squad. … Belichick isn't enamored with the Patriots return games at this point in the season, saying "We haven't done much of anything in either phase of the game – punt or kickoff returns – in five games now." He said that there is "no question" receiver Troy Brown will back in the mix to return punts when he returns from a knee injury.