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Position Breakdown: Inside linebackers

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - An experienced and veteran group, the Patriots inside linebackers are at the core of the New England defense. Within the solid overall performance of the defense in 2004 were several impressive individual performances by the Patriots inside linebackers.

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]()The group begins with Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson, two long-time veterans who have been with the team for all four Super Bowls of the recent era. Two others veterans on the inside - Roman Phifer and Don Davis - made valuable contributions in 2004 as part-time starters and situational players. The fifth veteran member of the group, Larry Izzo, continues to perform as one of the National Football League's top special teams players.

The 2004 season was a remarkable season for Bruschi, who was voted a defensive co-captain and started all 16 games for the second consecutive season, further cementing his status as one of the team's unquestioned leaders. While his ninth NFL season was arguably his best season to date, and culminated in his first Pro Bowl appearance, it will ultimately be overshadowed by the reported mild stroke he suffered in mid-February. Because of the sensitive nature of the topic as a private matter surrounding Bruschi and his family, the Patriots have not issued a statement regarding his status.

Bruschi finished second on the Patriots with 128 total tackles, recorded 3.5 sacks, forced three fumbles and also tied for second on the team with three interceptions. His consistency and big-play ability were on display from start to finish, as he recorded eight or more tackles in a game on nine occasions and was twice named AFC Defensive Player of the Week. He recorded eight tackles in the season-opening win over Indianapolis, including a crucial goal line interception of Peyton Manning. He earned player of the week honors in Week 4 against Buffalo (eight tackles, a half sack and a forced fumble) and Week 17 against San Francisco (14 tackles, eight solo tackles and a forced fumble) and also set single game career-highs during the season in total tackles (16 against Pittsburgh on Oct. 31) and solo tackles (12 against Cincinnati on Dec. 12).

The 31-year-old Bruschi, who was a second-team AP All-Pro selection, is the Patriots leading tackler since 2001 with 403 total tackles.

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]()The Patriots witnessed a return to health by Johnson , who started 15 of his 16 regular season games alongside Bruschi to anchor the inside linebackers. Johnson was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 2 at Arizona and remained the starter throughout the regular season, finishing third on the team with 112 total tackles. A quintessential run-stopping linebacker in the 3-4 defense, the 6-4, 253-pound Johnson was vital to the Patriots improved run defense as the season wore on. His staple games included 10 total tackles (seven solo) and a forced fumble against the New York Jets on Oct. 24, followed by 14 total tackles (nine solo) the following week at Pittsburgh.

The key for Johnson is staying on the field. He played in every regular season game, something he was able to accomplish for the first time since 1997. Johnson, who turned 32 during the season, had missed 28 games over the five-year span from 1999-2003.

A full-time starter in 2003, Phifer moved into a situational role in 2004. In his 14th NFL season and fourth with the Patriots, Phifer collected 51 total tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception in 13 games. Two seasons removed from leading the Patriots with 109 tackles in 2002, Phifer proved his value by playing mostly on passing downs and in sub packages where his speed and coverage ability could be utilized. He made his only start of the regular season against Indianapolis, finishing with a team-high 11 tackles and also started and made three tackles in Super Bowl XXXIX. Phifer's football future is in doubt after the Patriots released him on Feb. 28.

One of the more unheralded members of the Patriots, Davis also proved to be among the most versatile in 2004. In his ninth NFL season and second with the Patriots, Davis played in all 16 games this season, making two starts at safety while also seeing time at linebacker and on special teams. The 32-year-old collected 17 total tackles on defense - nearly all of which came during the second half of the season - and finished third on the team with 19 special teams tackles. When injuries forced starting free safety Eugene Wilson to shift to cornerback, it was the 6-1, 235-pound Davis - the quickest of the team's linebackers - who was asked to make the switch to safety. Davis began seeing action at safety in Week 9 against St. Louis, and earned the favor of the coaching staff to the point he made his first career starts at the position the final two weeks of the season. Davis is currently an unrestricted free agent.

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]()Izzo, 30, was voted special teams captain by his teammates for 2004 and continued in his role as a special teams stalwart. He led the Patriots with 27 special teams tackles this season, earning the distinction of leading the team in that category in each of his four seasons in New England since 2001. Although he rarely plays in the base defense, Izzo was named to his third Pro Bowl in 2004 as the AFC special teams player. A nine-year veteran, Izzo signed a contract extension during the season that runs through 2006.

Position Analysis: While the production at inside linebacker remained at a high level, the combination of the age at the position and its importance to the defense made adding younger players to the group a priority even before the recent health concerns surrounding Bruschi. The combination of Bruschi' all-around skills and Johnson's run defense proved to be an ideal fit in the 3-4 defense this season, but age and depth will at some point be addressed. While Phifer and Davis could both be brought back, the fact that all five players at the position were at least 30 years old makes change almost inevitable. The Patriots could chose to bring in a veteran during the free agent period or wait until after April's NFL Draft when many veterans are released after June 1. Free agents like Brandon Moore (49ers) or Jay Foreman (Texas) could be on the Patriots radar, while Nebraska's Barrett Ruud and Georgia's Odell Thurman could all be available at No. 32 overall in a draft that isn't considered to be linebacker-heavy.

Past Position Breakdowns:Feb. 18: Running Backs
Feb. 22: Tight Ends
Feb. 23: Wide Receivers
Feb. 28: Offensive Line
March 3: Quarterbacks
March 9: Special Teams
March 10: Defensive Line
March 14: Safeties
March 19: Cornerbacks

Frank Tadych is a reporter for Patriots.com and contributing writer for Patriots Football Weekly. He can be reached at *FrankT@patriots.com.*

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