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This group could be the Patriots' lifeline

FOXBOROUGH -- ''It all starts up front."

Said Richard Seymour.

Said Ty Warren.

Said Vince Wilfork.

Said coach Bill Belichick.

Linebackers may be the best athletes on the field -- they can be as strong as linemen and as fast as defensive backs -- and the Patriots' 3-4 alignment features them prominently, but a weak defensive line renders a defense helpless.

''No defense can be any good without good defensive linemen, or without them being able to do their job effectively, put it that way," Belichick said. ''Because it all starts with them.

''Not saying every defensive lineman has to be a great player, certainly they all aren't, but if a defensive lineman isn't consistent, if he doesn't consistently do what he's supposed to do, then it's very difficult for the players playing behind him to consistently do what they're supposed to do."

Belichick has seen many a good defensive line, dominant ones even. He says the best he's been around was the first he saw up close.

In 1975, his first year in the NFL, he was a special assistant to coach Ted Marchibroda of the Baltimore Colts, who had a defensive line that earned the moniker the ''Sack Pack."

Led by Pro Bowl defensive end John Dutton, the Colts racked up 59 sacks in a 14-game schedule (4.2 per game) that year. The 1984 Chicago Bears hold the NFL record with 72 sacks (4.5 a game).

As defensive coordinator with the Giants, Belichick was part of two Super Bowl championship squads. In 1986, tackle Jim Burt and end Leonard Marshall were Pro Bowl picks on a line that, while very impressive, was bolstered by the spectacular play of the league's top defender, Lawrence Taylor, and fellow linebacker Harry Carson.

Tackle Erik Howard picked up the only Pro Bowl nod of his Giants' career on the 1990 title-winning squad, though Taylor and Pepper Johnson, now the Patriots' defensive line coach, were All-Pro linebackers.

Despite three Super Bowl championships in the last four years, Seymour is the only Patriots lineman to go to the Pro Bowl in that time.

The 2001 squad, with the rookie Seymour starting at tackle most of the season, allowed more yards than the Patriots managed. In Warren's rookie campaign (2003), the Patriots finished seventh in yards allowed, but gave up the fewest points in the league (14.9 per game).

Last year, with Wilfork working his way into the starting lineup at nose tackle, New England slipped to ninth in yards surrendered, but tied for second in fewest points given up.

No one knows what the numbers will be this season, and New England may be weaker at linebacker without Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson, but up front, at least, the Patriots are positioned to be as good as in some time.

Seymour, who missed the first few days of camp because of a contract holdout, sets the pace. He has led Patriots linemen in tackles in each of the past three years.

Before Seymour was a Pro Bowl selection in 2002, no Patriots defensive lineman had been so honored since Julius Adams 22 years before.

In Seymour, Warren, and Wilfork, and reserve Jarvis Green, the Patriots have a front that enters this season with the realistic expectation of being among the best in the league.

''We're going into this year wanting to be one of the best, if not the best, in the NFL," Wilfork said. ''We're taking it upon ourselves to be that way.

''The ball's been rolling for a while now. We're happy to have Seymour back, so the ball is going to pick up [speed] and the speed of the game is going to pick up. So we have to be prepared for anything they throw at us."

Belichick says he thinks it is ''very unusual" to have a group of defensive linemen as young and talented as the Patriots have.

Seymour, 25, is the first Patriot to make the Pro Bowl in three of his first four years in the league since cornerback Mike Haynes was voted in each of his first four seasons (1976-79).

''Right now I feel he's the best in the game," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said, ''and the amazing thing is he will keep working hard and keep getting better."

Warren, 24, started every game of his second season and expects a breakout year.

''The learning never stops, but at this point I understand the defense," said Warren, who had 64 tackles in 2004. ''The better you understand something, the better you should perform."

Wilfork, 23, is the baby of the bunch. He started six games on the nose last season, with 57 stops for the year. He also feels he is primed for a big season.

''I should be better in the defense than I was last year," Wilfork said. ''The more you do something, the better you get at it.

''I think I got comfortable in the middle of the season last year with this defense. But in a new year, I have film to go back and look at what I need to work on. That's a huge advantage for me.

''The coaches expect a lot out of you. There are no excuses now; you're not a rookie anymore. You have no business out there making dumb mistakes, rookie mistakes."

Belichick agrees.

''I think he's certainly way ahead of where he was last year because of his experience in the system," he said. ''Vince is in good shape. He's worked hard and I'm pleased with where he is. Though as a second-year player there are a lot of things he can do better and he has a ways to go, he's playing at a good level."

Green has 12 starts in his three-year career, not including three in the playoffs last year when Seymour was injured. He will be more than a fill-in waiting for injuries. He'll be in the rotation to keep fresh players on the field and the Patriots are likely to use more four-man fronts this season than in recent years.

''We definitely have the talent," Seymour said. ''We just want to be consistent game in and game out."

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