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For Pats to be winners, Belichick must come through in big way

  • By Vic Carucci NFL.com
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It's safe to say Bill Belichick's coaching résumé doesn't need a boost.

As the best active coach in the NFL and one of the greatest in league history, he has pretty much scaled all of the mountains there are to scale in his business.

Yet, the 2010 season presents an opportunity for Belichick to actually demonstrate, once again, just how exceptional he really is at all of this Xs-and-Os stuff.

The case can be made that it will likely take the best coaching job of Belichick's career for the Patriots to be successful. That is, by Patriot standards, which means a run at a fourth Super Bowl victory.

The current edition of the Patriots is defined by youth on both sides of the ball, although it is more pronounced on defense. Although the core of the roster is comprised of established players (Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Kevin Faulk, Matt Light and the rest of the offensive line, Vince Wilfork and the rest of the defensive line), it has a significant number of new or newer faces in significant places: Cornerback (rookie Devin McCourty and second-year man Darius Butler), safety (second-year man Pat Chung), linebacker (rookie Brandon Spikes), and tight end (rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez).

In winning three Super Bowls, the Patriots -- except for Brady's miraculous Super Bowl XXXVI MVP performance as a first-year starter -- were all about experience, especially on defense. Belichick's 3-4 scheme has long been one of the most complicated in the league, so it makes sense that older and more knowledgeable players do better in it than younger ones still behind the learning curve. Generally speaking, he has always been willing to sacrifice the athleticism that goes with youth for the smarts and savvy of a veteran.

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» Kirwan: Belichick at it again

The economic and physical realities of the NFL put a limited shelf life on such an approach. Teams eventually get younger, and the Patriots are no exception. That's where coaching must come through in a big way. And the brunt of the task falls on Belichick, because his is the only team in the league without assistant coaches who carry the title of coordinator (Belichick doubles as the defensive coordinator and has a big hand on the offensive side) and he has one of the smallest coaching staffs in the NFL. Belichick has to be at the very top of his game to get the youngsters to perform at a level that allows for excellence -- a level such as the one they displayed for most of the Patriots' 38-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

If ever there figured to be a game where young defenders would struggle badly, this was it. The Bengals are supposed to have the quarterback (Carson Palmer) and receivers (Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens) that devour kids attempting to cover them. Ochocinco did finish with 12 receptions, including one for a touchdown, but had only two in the first half when the Patriots took such a commanding lead that the Bengals never were able to mount a serious threat the rest of the way. Owens had seven catches, with five in the first half that did little damage.

Bengals veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, for one, wasn't surprised that Belichick was able to get the best out his less-experienced players in the season opener.

"He's a great football coach," Whitworth said. "The one thing his team always is is technically sound, and they don't make mistakes."

The primary reason for that, according to outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, is that Belichick and the assistant coaches he does have "do a good job of bringing the young guys up to speed and really get them prepared to know what's expected of them and what they've got to do." A majority of that comes from getting players to thoroughly understand the playbook, but it is accompanied by a strong dose of grasping the importance of staying within one's responsibility in the scheme. All players, but particularly young ones, have a tendency to get away from that on the assumption that their athletic skill can allow them to make a play regardless of whether they're properly carrying out an assignment.

"We're not asking them to do everything," Banta-Cain said. "They just have one, specific job that they have to do. Then, if they do that to their best, we're going to have good results."

After last January's ugly playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, questions surfaced about whether the Patriots' younger players were serious enough about handling their responsibilities and that Belichick was getting through to them. Brady wondered aloud why any player wouldn't listen to a coaching legend, which gave the strong impression that Belichick might have lost some juice since 2007, when the Patriots went 18-0 before their shocking loss to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl XLII.


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If what the team showed Sunday and what their rookies have been showing since the start of the offseason is any indication, those concerns should start to fade.

"I'm working hard, and then I see every day that all the young guys are working hard and listening to what all the coaches have to say," said Gronkowski, who caught a touchdown pass in his first official NFL game after catching four in the preseason. "That's why I believe that we went out there (Sunday) and executed pretty well."

How did McCourty get ready for his first NFL game? "I just prepared ... and prepared even more," he said, referring to extensive studying of videotape with his position coach, teammates, and at home. "You've just got to dedicate yourself to the time of studying the playbook and being ready to play. (Belichick) tells you to study. Coach is straightforward and he tells you you've got to learn your playbook and study."

Coach also doesn't allow any room for excuses. Not for the players. Not for his assistant coaches. Not for himself.

"I think we've been practicing now for 50 practices, counting the dozen or so in the spring and all the ones in training camp, and this is our fifth game," Belichick said. "Somewhere along the line, you've got to be able to do something."

Added Banta-Cain: "It just comes down to trust. We believe in everybody that lines up. Anybody that they put in the game, it's for a reason. Young or old, if you're out there, it's because you're going to help us win. We don't treat them like rookies. We expect them to help us win."

Observation points

» When you look at how well the Pittsburgh Steelers ran the ball against Atlanta (120 yards and a 5.5-yards-per-carry average for Rashard Mendenhall) and the fact that Falcons defensive tackle Peria Jerry was credited with only one tackle, you have to say center Maurkice Pouncey did pretty well in becoming only the second Steelers rookie offensive lineman since the 1960s to start a season opener.

» Granted, the opponent was Detroit and the opposing quarterback (Matthew Stafford) was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury, but the Chicago Bears' defense still has to be pleased with limiting the Lions to only 29 percent efficiency on third down. Last year, the unit finished 27th in the league in that category (at 41 percent) and was 30th in the preseason (46 percent).

» It certainly didn't look like the Washington Redskins made any adjustments to their play-calling to account for Donovan McNabb's bad ankle. They stayed true to their offense, which takes advantage of his ability to roll out and generally make plays on the move. McNabb was far from spectacular in his Redskins debut, but there is reason to believe he'll improve as he becomes more comfortable with Mike and Kyle Shanahan's scheme. Rookie offensive tackle Trent Williams, who had a surprisingly strong debut against standout outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, will help.

» Two significant defensive trends continued for the Texans in their win over the Colts: Mario Williams got another sack against the team he has the most sacks against, and multiple pass-rush pressure, which was the key to their sacking Peyton Manning four times last year, came into play when Antonio Smith and Jesse Nading combined for one of Houston's two sacks Sunday. Smith also was a factor in Williams' sack.

They've got answers

» The Philadelphia Eagles, because Michael Vick gives them a backup quarterback with starting-quality talent. Vick made plenty happen, with his throwing arm as well as with those dynamic legs, after Kevin Kolb left the Green Bay game with a concussion. He should fill in nicely if Kolb is unable to play at Detroit, and might, in fact, force his way into the No. 1 spot because of Kolb's poor showing before his concussion. Some of Vick's success against the Packers could be attributed to the fact that he was a scrambler and Green Bay's defense prepared for a pocket passer. But the argument also could be made that with a full week of preparation, Vick could excel.

» The Pittsburgh Steelers, because their defense, now that safety Troy Polamalu is healthy, did plenty to help them overcome the absence of suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the season-opening win against Atlanta, and looks to be back to the dominant form that had so much to do with the team's being a perennial contender.

» The Houston Texans, because with the power running that Arian Foster provides, have a dimension they had desperately needed to get the most out of quarterback Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and the rest of a passing attack that is obviously going to be much more explosive on a regular basis than what it showed against the Colts.

They've got questions

» The San Francisco 49ers, because as much as coach Mike Singletary might be applauded for the motivational tactic of "thanking" the opposing coach (Seattle's Pete Carroll) for the butt-kicking his team received, he could very well end up offering the same to many other opponents on his schedule if he can't fix his offense. The shaky history of quarterback Alex Smith was always the wildcard in all of those lofty predictions about the 49ers winning a supposedly "wide open" NFC West. After one game, the questions about him have only intensified.

» The Colts, because there aren't any easy repairs for that defense that got trampled on the ground in Houston. When you're built for speed, you're going to have days like that. And all it proves is that a lights-out performance by Peyton Manning (433 yards and three touchdowns) doesn't guarantee success when the opponent can control the tempo of the game with a 231-yard rusher.

» The Oakland Raiders, because all of that optimism and hype about smart moves in the offseason and a change in culture and a new, winning attitude evaporated in one afternoon in Tennessee. So far, the only thing that seems noticeably different about the Raiders' quarterback situation is the name on the back of a jersey.

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Four intriguing matchups for Week 2

New England at New York Jets: The ultra-humble Patriots get an initial chance to remind the trash-talking Jets -- and everyone else -- that they're still the team to beat in the AFC East. This game is going to do plenty to set the course for the rest of the season for both teams.

Baltimore at Cincinnati: If the Bengals couldn't figure out a way to get their running game going against the Patriots -- whose youthful secondary never did help open the door by giving up big passing yards early -- they're not likely to fare a whole lot better against Ray Lewis and his buddies, even though Cedric Benson had 120 and 117 yards vs. the Ravens last year.

New York Giants at Indianapolis: Eli vs. Peyton, alone, is enough reason to tune into this one. But now the Colts are suddenly looking to avoid the embarrassment of falling into a 0-2 hole in their home opener on national television.

Pittsburgh at Tennessee: There was a time, not too long ago, when these teams were widely viewed as the heavyweights of the AFC. Could that be the case again?

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