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By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / July 28, 2009

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Other than the 15th offensive snap of the season, when Tom Brady crumpled to the turf in pain, it would be hard to find another play that reflected the Patriots’ 2008 struggles better than this:

Overtime. Third and 15. Momentum on the Patriots’ side after a late, fourth-quarter touchdown to tie the score. Jets backed up to their 15-yard line.

The mid-November crowd at Gillette Stadium was frenzied. Then everything fizzled.

A blown assignment and/or miscommunication left the nickel defense vulnerable, and quarterback Brett Favre connected with tight end Dustin Keller for 16 yards and an unexpected first down. The Jets went on to score, with another third-down conversion putting them in position for the winning points.

Third-down nightmares haunted the Patriots for much of the year.

They finished 26th out of 32 teams on third down, opponents converting 44.4 percent of the time.

It might be the most repeated statistic of the offseason, and it bears noting as the Patriots prepare for training camp Thursday (practices at 9:30 a.m. and 3:45 p.m.).

While Brady’s recovery is clearly the top story line for the Patriots - and arguably the entire NFL at this point - it’s also the most obvious. Even if Brady returns to form, a repeat of the third-down problems won’t get the Patriots where they want to go.

So in the spirit of a new season, let’s start in the not-so-obvious, Brady-less spot when it comes to top Patriots story lines:

1. Third-down defense

Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, who already is making his mark as an analyst for NBC, has been deep in his media playbook.

“One of the things that stood out to me from last year is that if you look at the top five teams in the league on third down defensively, four of them made the playoffs,’’ he said. “That tells you all you need to know.’’

Pittsburgh (first), Philadelphia (second), Baltimore (third), and Minnesota (fourth) were the NFL’s top third-down defenses, and the Steelers won the Super Bowl. Chicago, which was eliminated from postseason contention on the final weekend, rounded out the top five.

A successful third-down defense must blend an effective pass rush with tight pass coverage. Considering the Patriots overhauled their cornerback crop from 2008 - and only tweaked the pass-rush front - those moves indicate where the team’s decision-makers believed the main problems were. Also, the Patriots’ top draft choice, 34th overall, was a safety, Patrick Chung.

“I think the secondary has a chance to be real good,’’ Harrison said. “They’ll be better and faster now. I see the young guys providing a lot of speed and athletic ability.’’

2. Tom Brady’s return

Harrison drew from his experience in returning from torn knee ligaments when describing what he expects to be Brady’s biggest challenge.

“For me, in training camp and the first few games, it was getting used to people falling around my legs because you never want to feel that pain again. It’s one of the toughest pains you ever face in your life,’’ he said. “That’s why I think it will be good the first couple of times he gets sacked. I think he’ll gain confidence from there.’’

Brady, who plans to wear a brace on his left knee, didn’t play in the 2008 exhibition season. If he’s medically cleared, there remains a question as to whether he’ll play this preseason. The hunch here is he will.

“I think Tom is going to be terrific,’’ Harrison said. “He’s going to come back hungrier and be more focused. Guys like him are so in-tune mentally, so you don’t just rely on physical tools, it’s a mental game, too. And the great guys like Tom Brady can beat you even worse in that area.’’

3. Better red-zone defense

Opponents made 45 trips into the red zone last season against the Patriots and came away with points on 42 drives. Thirty of the trips culminated in touchdowns, which ranked the Patriots 31st in that category.

When analyzing how the Patriots can be better in the red zone, Harrison starts with one of the team’s rising young players.

“I think this is a great opportunity for [linebacker Jerod] Mayo to step up, now that he’s already had a year in the defense, and to become a big communicator in the defense,’’ he said. “Communication is so important in the red zone, and he’s a guy who could become very important down there.’’

The only times the opposition was denied points in the red zone were Week 1 against the Chiefs (pass breakup on the game’s final play), Week 2 against the Jets (missed Jay Feely 31-yard field goal attempt), and Week 17 against the Bills (time ran out after a 3-yard Fred Jackson run and ensuing scrum).

In terms of individual matchups, expect the Patriots to carve out additional practice for the Dolphins, who scored eight touchdowns on eight trips inside the 20 against them last season.

“More than anything, I think it’s a lack of focus,’’ Harrison said. “I don’t think it’s a talent question.’’

4. Filling the Vrabel void

Outside linebacker Mike Vrabel played in 87 percent of the defensive snaps last season, third among defenders on the team behind Mayo and cornerback Ellis Hobbs. Vrabel, whose value on early downs was setting a strong edge to force running plays inside, rushed the passer on third down, and could have topped the charts had he not been rested toward the end of games that already were decided.

So who fills that sizable gap?

Harrison thinks four-year veteran Pierre Woods is the leading candidate.

“I see him as a phenomenal young talent, a hard-working talent who is smart and will do whatever they ask him to,’’ he said.

Woods’s primary competition will come from second-year players Shawn Crable and Vince Redd, and seven-year veteran Tully Banta-Cain. A veteran acquisition is a possibility. The Patriots were in the mix for Jason Taylor and had trade discussions with the Raiders about Derrick Burgess.

5. Carving out an identity

Harrison said he could pick out any number of other story lines, but instead, he wrapped his thoughts into one.

“I see a wealth of talent at the running back position, so will they come out and pass the ball 40, 50 times, or will it be geared more toward establishing the run? There are a lot of weapons on that offense - at running back, I think they should be able to run 30 times a game for 100 yards minimum,’’ he said. “And if teams load up to stop the run, who sticks with [Randy] Moss, [Wes] Welker, [Joey] Galloway, the tight ends? I’m not sure who will stop them - the closest team I see is the Pittsburgh Steelers.’’

Other story lines of note:

■ Fred Taylor, a top free agent signing, adds a dynamic to the running back corps. How will the carries be split?

■ Veteran Galloway, 37, is the top candidate to fill Jabar Gaffney’s void as the No. 3 receiver, which is like being a starter in the team’s three-wide system.

■ Developing 2008 third-round draft choice Kevin O’Connell at backup quarterback, along with Matt Gutierrez and Brian Hoyer.

■ Major changes on the offensive side of the coaching staff, as well as special teams.

■ Twelve draft choices, the highest total in the Bill Belichick era, vying for roster spots.

■ Veteran free agents Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden top the cornerback depth chart.

■ The Patriots are one of 16 teams returning their top personnel on the offensive line. Is the continuity a benefit?

■ Nose tackle Vince Wilfork and his contract status; he skipped voluntary organized team activities.

■ A new look at tight end with acquisitions Chris Baker (free agent) and Alex Smith (trade).

Mike Reiss can be reached at

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