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Williams ultimate test

Will improved run defense stack up?

FOXBOROUGH -- They've had their six weeks of warmups. Now it gets real.

The Patriots have improved their run defense from 31st at the end of last season to seventh heading into Sunday's game against the Dolphins in Miami. But they still haven't really proved themselves. New England may be allowing its opponents 89.3 yards per game, but with all due respect, none of those teams had a back of Ricky Williams's caliber.

"The main goal coming into this year was what? We've got to do better against the run," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said yesterday. "That's been a focus for us. I think this is our biggest challenge of the year. Going down to Miami with Ricky Williams, this is the test."

How have the Patriots succeeded in strengthening their greatest weakness of a year ago? "We're just playing better," Bruschi said. "Are we calling different defenses than we did last year? No. It's just another year. We looked at it as a challenge to be better vs. the run, and we've been doing it."

Williams is averaging a mere 3.4 yards per carry -- down from 4.8 last year -- though he's fifth in the AFC with 461 rushing yards. Those figures are irrelevant to the Patriots. They figure he's due to break out any day now. All they know is Williams gashed their defense for 185 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries (6 yards per rush) in last year's season finale at Gillette Stadium. "Priest Holmes, Ricky Williams. Probably the top two backs in my opinion," Bruschi said.

But the Dolphins have more than just Williams. In the past few years, quarterback and Dartmouth alumnus Jay Fiedler has been more of a pain to the Patriots than the bruising Williams was in gaining 290 yards in two games against them last season.

"I think Jay Fiedler makes them go," Bruschi said. "He's a guy that is a great game manager. He makes plays when he has to make plays. And when he doesn't, he's smart enough not to make mistakes. People always talk about the quarterbacks that throw six touchdowns in a game and get 300-plus yards. All Fiedler does is win. You should judge a quarterback on how many games he's won, and he's done a great job down there."

Drawing a crowd

The Patriots listed 13 players on their injury report, most notably fullback Larry Centers, who is doubtful and did not practice yesterday because of a right knee injury.

Ted Johnson and Ted Washington are still out, mending a broken left foot and left leg, respectively. Tackle Adrian Klemm, who has been inactive the past three games, is also doubtful with a sprained right ankle. Linebacker Mike Vrabel, who has missed the past three games with a broken right arm, returned to practice yesterday, though he, too, is doubtful.

Questionables who sat out practice: receiver Deion Branch (right ankle), special teamer Je'Rod Cherry (right knee), cornerback Ty Law (right ankle), and linebacker Willie McGinest (neck). Tight end Daniel Graham (right shoulder), receiver David Patten (right knee), and running back Antowain Smith (left shoulder/neck) are questionable but practiced. As usual, Tom Brady (arm) is probable.

Miami listed 11 players on its injury report. Tackle Mark Dixon (ankle) and fullback Rob Konrad (knee) are doubtful. Defensive tackle Tim Bowens (hand) and linebacker Junior Seau (hamstring) are questionable. Fiedler (calf), safety Trent Gamble (quadriceps), safety Brock Marion (ankle), safety Shawn Wooden (ankle), defensive end Adewale Ogunleye (hip), defensive end Jason Taylor (quadriceps), and linebacker Zach Thomas (foot) are all probable.

Bill Belichick said last week that he expected Kenyatta Jones to begin practicing this week, but the Patriots did not activate the right tackle from the physically-unable-to-perform list. They activated rookie linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, giving them 21 days to decide whether to add him to the active roster.

He's got it covered

Seau was asked to assess former teammate Rodney Harrison's coverage skills while the two were in San Diego. "Rodney didn't have to cover anybody with his body. They feared him. That's the best coverage man you could ever have in the back." . . . Miami has won more road games this season (three) than it did all of last year (two), when the Dolphins dropped their last five in a row away from Pro Player Stadium. "I think that our guys just approached it a little bit better than last year, and understood the sense of urgency of trying to win a couple games on the road," coach Dave Wannstedt said. "It hasn't been easy and they never are." . . . The last time these teams met, in the '02 finale, the Dolphins blew a 24-13 lead with 4 minutes 59 seconds left and lost, 27-24, in overtime. The loss cost Miami the division. "There really hasn't been any discussion about last year," Wannstedt said. "Just like [the Patriots] added a lot of new players, 40 percent of our team is new this year. We've got 20 new players out of the 53. I'm not going to stand up here and talk about last year or two years ago. Junior Seau, Sammy Knight, those guys could care less."

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