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For Brady to have successful return, pass protection must improve

The NFL is a better place with Tom Brady back in uniform, and all indications are that the New England Patriots' quarterback will be 100 percent when the 2009 season starts. It's also good news that Brady intends to play 10 more years -- which means he would be 41 when his career ends.

Brady is back

Tom Brady returns to practice with the Patriots for the first time since suffering a knee injury in Week 1 last season and reports no ill effects after the time away from the game. More ...

Brady's work ethic is legendary in New England. He's the first guy in the Patriots' facility and often the last to leave, so it's no wonder that he will be ready to go this fall. The question is whether his return to health will be enough for the Patriots to return to the glory days of that undefeated 2007 regular season.

The Patriots still must resolve a serious issue for Brady to lead them back to the promised land.

The vivid memories of the New York Giants' Super Bowl XLII assault on Brady, when they sacked him five times and hit him another nine times, are like a nightmare to New England. Before that game, former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo (now a first-year head coach with the St. Louis Rams) realized there was no way to stop the Patriots' offensive machine unless his team got to Brady. In order to achieve that pressure, Spagnuolo greased up his "fire-zone" blitz scheme and sent rushers from every direction.

The Giants weren't the first team to go after Brady that season, and when you look at the last five games he played in 2007, it becomes clear that the Patriots need to solidify their pass protection. If they don't, Brady might not make it through the 2009 season, let alone play until he is 41.

In the last five games of 2007, Brady was sacked 12 times and hit another 29 times. He had 195 pass plays called in those five games, meaning he was sacked once every 16 pass attempts and hit once every seven. In the 2008 opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, he was hit twice in 11 pass attempts before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

From 2005 to 2007, Brady averaged 565 pass plays per season. But if the Patriots' pass protection doesn't improve from what it was in those last six games, Brady could be in for 35 sacks and 80 hits in 2009. That's not how you play 10 more seasons.

Keep in mind, when the Giants created the blueprint for slowing down the mighty Patriots offense with an aggressive blitz scheme, we never had a chance to see how teams playing New England in 2008 might employ the strategy. In the copy-cat NFL, you can bet teams would experiment with many of the things the Giants did that Super Bowl Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium.

During the preseason, don't expect to see many clues about how teams will attack Brady. However, the first four regular-season games (against the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens) should provide the answers to how defenses will apply what they learned from the Giants. Coaches Dick Jauron, Rex Ryan, Mike Smith and John Harbaugh will study that Super Bowl game tape, as well as the other four games preceding it, plus what the Chiefs were trying to do in the 2008 opener.

Randy Moss recently said that he and fellow Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker learned the offense in Brady's absence last year and that he expects the team to be even better than it was during that record-setting 2007 season. That's a scary thought -- and probably true -- but it also shows opponents that they must go after Brady or they likely will lose.

It's hard to judge how teams played the Patriots last season when Matt Cassel took over as quarterback and if those defensive schemes would work against Brady. Cassel can really run (he took off 73 times for 270 yards in 2008), but he also was sacked 47 times, or once in every 12 pass attempts.

Yes, Brady is back, and he's a force with which to be reckoned. However, the same offensive line that started for New England in Super Bowl XLII is penciled in to start in 2009. Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur are all very good players who are well-instructed by 28-year coaching veteran Dante Scarnecchia, but they will be challenged early and often. There's no choice for the teams playing the Patriots -- they must pressure Brady.

When the Patriots practice in shorts, it will be hard for them to really work on all the things they will face during the season. But you can bet that coach Bill Belichick and the entire franchise is attacking the problem that awaits them in 2009.

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