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Patriots hope to turn over new leaf

FOXBOROUGH -- Pepper Johnson must be beside himself, flipping through coaching books in search of new teaching methods.

As part of his responsibilities, the Patriots' likable and intense defensive line coach leads the team's ''ball disruption" portion of practice each week. This is when the Patriots focus on opponents' tendencies holding the ball, with an eye toward forcing turnovers.

To this point, the results haven't been what the Patriots want.

When coach Bill Belichick assesses his defense through five games, he can point to a few areas of concern, such as too many big plays (20 yards or more) allowed in the secondary and too many points allowed (27.2 per game).

The lack of turnovers -- one interception (by linebacker Mike Vrabel) and two forced fumbles -- is also at the top of the list. Only the Texans (zero) have fewer interceptions.

''Right now," Belichick said, ''we're in a little bit of a dry spell."

The Patriots' turnover ratio of minus-6 ranks them in a tie for 26th in the NFL.

Belichick often points out that statistics can be twisted in many ways, but he doesn't dispute the importance of turnover ratio. At least twice this week, he's noted that the Patriots are beating unlikely odds by losing the turnover battle in each of their last two victories.

''We'd like to get them and, statistically, we're fighting an uphill battle when we're on the negative turnover ratio and winning games, especially on the road. That's not normally the correlation," he said. ''We'd like to get more. We work on them. We're going to keep working on them. Hopefully they will come in spurts."

This is the area where the loss of cornerback Ty Law (2 INTs with the Jets) and linebacker Tedy Bruschi (3 INTs, 4 forced fumbles in 2004) might affect the Patriots the most. Both were playmakers.

Through the years, Belichick defenses have generally had enough playmakers to finish on the plus side in turnover ratio. The Patriots were plus-7 in 2001 en route to their championship in Super Bowl XXXVI. In 2002, they were plus-5, followed by plus-17 in 2003. Last year, the team was plus-9.

The only year the Belichick-led Patriots posted a negative ratio (minus-2) was 2000, his first as coach.

A look at defenses coached by Belichick over the years shows a similar trend. As assistant head coach/secondary coordinator with the Jets from 1997-99, New York had a plus ratio each season and was plus-22 combined over those three seasons.

The 1996 Patriots -- with Belichick as secondary coach/assistant head coach -- was plus-7.

From 1991-95, when Belichick was head coach of the Browns, Cleveland finished even in turnover ratio, with two plus seasons and three minus seasons.

And the Giants from 1985-1990 -- when Belichick was defensive coordinator -- were a combined plus-35, with four plus seasons and two minuses. A plus-20 season in 1990, when the Giants won the Super Bowl, was the high point.

So from 1985 to the present, teams with Belichick as a defensive or head coach have a combined plus-94 turnover ratio. In the 20 seasons prior to the current campaign, Belichick has had just six seasons with a negative ratio, three coming in Cleveland. The worst season was a minus-14 in Cleveland (1993).

Consider that the last team to win the Super Bowl with a negative turnover ratio for the season was the Redskins in 1987 (minus-3) -- and it's no wonder Belichick values the stat so highly.

Belichick divided turnovers into two categories: those that the offense gift-wraps vs. those created by the defense.

''Some teams are more careless with the ball than others and you have more opportunities," he said. ''Atlanta doesn't fit into that category and a lot of other teams don't fit into that category that we've been playing recently. They make it hard to get the ball and we haven't done enough to get it out when we have had a chance to get it. We haven't capitalized on those opportunities."

No doubt, the Patriots have had a few potential turnovers slip out of their grasp. Cornerback Duane Starks had an interception nullified by a penalty against Carolina and had at least one other potential pick slip through his hands in Atlanta.

As history shows, the minus-6 turnover ratio is quite un-Belichickian. And an area the Patriots must improve in their quest for a third straight Super Bowl crown.

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