Friday, September 11, 2009
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Patriots get makeover, but they still have Brady

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[September 11, 2009]  FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- The New England Patriots begin the season without five of last year's defensive starters.

Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison retired. Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel and Ellis Hobbs were traded. That's 39 years of combined service with the three-time Super Bowl champions.

So why are the Patriots still one of the NFL's leading title contenders?

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are back.

One of the best quarterbacks and one of the best coaches of all time will lead the Patriots -- presuming Brady stays healthy -- with some extra drive after the team missed the playoffs for the first time in six years.

"We have plenty of motivation," Brady said. "We finished 11-5 last year and didn't make the playoffs and didn't win the division."

Of course, Brady played only the first half of the first quarter of the first game. That's when his season ended with torn ligaments in his left knee when he was hit by Kansas City's Bernard Pollard.


Since then, he went through surgeries, a long rehab, a demanding training camp and exhibition games in which he absorbed hard hits. The knee, protected by a brace, held up. He even threw well in practice after suffering a sore right shoulder when he was tackled in the third exhibition game.

There still may be some rust to shake off, but guard Logan Mankins expects Brady to sidestep pass rushers like he used to.

"Tom's not going to outrun anyone," Mankins said, "so if it's just for a few steps he's pretty mobile."

The veteran offense has returning starters at all five line spots and is deep at running back with Sammy Morris, Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. It has Randy Moss and Wes Welker at wide receiver with Joey Galloway backing them up.

"Tom's an outstanding player for us. I think we all know that," Belichick said. "Great players make players around them better, not just by what they do but by their ability to create opportunities for their teammates."

The same could be said of Belichick.

He's willing to cast aside some of the franchise's top players if he thinks that provides a better chance to win. Bruschi was dropped to a backup role in training camp and Seymour was traded to Oakland after five Pro Bowl appearances.

Belichick's 116 victories in nine seasons with the Patriots are already more than any coach had in his first 10 years with a team, including the postseason.

But now he must integrate 20 new players into his 53-man roster.

"I think our young players have worked hard. I think they're going to improve," Belichick said.

His biggest challenge will come on defense, his area of greatest expertise.

He no longer can rely on the hard hits of Harrison, the line play of Seymour and the leadership of Bruschi and Vrabel.

"Every team has change and I think because we've had some pretty good success here ... people recognize those names and those faces because they were part of the winning," Brady said, "but guys get older and guys move on."

And others assume leadership roles.

"I don't think it's something that we necessarily as coaches say, 'Well, we're going to make this guy a leader'. They just become that," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "Hopefully, we picked enough of those guys, and I believe we have, that they'll take over that responsibility."

Jerod Mayo is one of them.

The inside linebacker taken with the 10th pick in last year's draft was the Defensive Rookie of the Year. He already is calling plays and mentoring the rookies, including second-round draft picks Pat Chung, a safety, and Darius Butler, a cornerback.

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"I'm really trying to do the same thing that Tedy did for me as far as taking them under my wing and showing them the ropes," said Mayo, whose team-leading 139 tackles were 54 more than runner-up Vince Wilfork.

Without Vrabel and Bruschi, the Patriots have shown indications that they'll mix more 4-3 defensive alignments in with their usual 3-4. The addition of pass rusher Derrick Burgess, a defensive end at Oakland who also may play outside linebacker, could help compensate for Seymour's absence.

"We've been a multiple defense since I've been here. We'll continue to be that," Belichick said. "We'll try to put the players out there that we feel are the best for the situation or the game plan or the team we're playing."

The secondary got veteran help for young safeties James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather with the signing of free agents Leigh Bodden from Detroit and Shawn Springs from Washington.

The Miami Dolphins won the AFC East last year on a tiebreaker with the Patriots. The New York Jets added coach Rex Ryan and rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez. The Buffalo Bills appear to be the division's weakest team with an inexperienced offensive line and running back Marshawn Lynch suspended by the NFL for the first three games.


And the Patriots have Brady back.

In 2007, he was the NFL's MVP when he threw a league-record 50 touchdowns with eight interceptions. But the chance for a 19-0 season ended with a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.

And the next season ended much too soon.

"Nobody likes to sit out like I did last year and, really, I think the way our season ended last year, no one really enjoyed the offseason very much either," Brady said. "So everybody's excited to get back and anxious for the season."

[Associated Press; By HOWARD ULMAN]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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