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Patriots notebook

Defense knows it must start stopping foes early

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / September 7, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots are hoping for a fresh start stopping opposing offenses today when they open the regular season against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium.

During its 0-4 preseason, New England's first-team defense allowed the opposition to score on its opening drive all four times - two touchdowns and two field goals. Although it is easy to chalk that up to preseason play, linebacker Tedy Bruschi said you can't just throw out the defense's slow starts.

"Absolutely not, I see it as a problem," said Bruschi. "It's really bottom-line for defenses: Did they score or didn't they score? Teams have been able to score on us, especially on the first drive, and that's something that we're trying to preach with each other amongst the locker room and the team, is start fast, get out there, start doing your job right now. Let's get off the field and give our offense advantageous field position."

Bruschi said the solution is simple.
"Right now, how you get off the field is just to play better because it's about stopping those run plays, stopping those pass plays," said Bruschi.

Despite the fact that the Patriots held opponents to 3.7 yards per rush during the preseason, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, and the Giants combined to run the ball 21 times for 111 yards on opening drives.

With a healthy Larry Johnson and a capable stable of backups, the Chiefs are likely to try to come out running and create play-action opportunities for third-year quarterback Brodie Croyle, who is 0-6 as a starter.

"We have to tackle better," said safety Rodney Harrison. "We have to hustle to the ball more. We had glimpses of six, seven guys tackling [the ball carrier] against the Giants and other preseason games, and other times we would have one-on-one battles. In the past, this defense has had success by having five or six guys always on the ball carrier, and that's what we have to get back to. We will. That's a point of emphasis."

Work but no play
While the Patriots start their season today, right guard Stephen Neal won't be starting his. Neal, who sat out all of training camp, opens the season on the physically unable to perform list and is not eligible to practice or play until after the sixth week of the regular season.

"I guess you feel a little detached," said Neal, who is coming back from a knee injury he sustained in Super Bowl XLII. "Going out there suiting up with the guys on Sunday, that's always a big thing. But you can only do what you can do. I can come here, and I can work hard to get back out there on the field and that's what I'm going to try to do."

Neal has a workout buddy in offensive lineman Oliver Ross, who is opening the season on the non-football-injury list. The two will work together and take mental reps to get up to speed until they can return. Neal said he anticipates being able to play this season.

Returns Dept.
One area where new Patriots cornerback Deltha O'Neal could make an impact is punt returns, especially with wide receiver Wes Welker, the regular punt returner, having suffered a rib injury returning a punt against the Eagles. O'Neal has spent extra time with special teams coach Brad Seely, something all new players involved in the kicking game do. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said there's more to punt returning than meets the eye. "Certainly, catching it and running aggressively with the ball, that is what the job is," said Belichick. "There are a lot of coaching points that go into the return game, the rush game, plus-50 punting and, in our stadium, the wind is always a factor. There are always things like that that play a factor. There are some strategy situations, scheme and situational plays involved." . . . The Patriots enter today's game with an NFL-record 19-game regular-season winning steak that dates to Dec. 17, 2006 . . . The Patriots are 6-0 in home openers at Gillette Stadium. They have won four straight season openers and are 24-24 all-time on opening day.

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