FOXBORO — For years, it was a job held by Rodney Harrison.
Within the New England defense, the “safety/linebacker” hybrid is a difficult one with a myriad of duties. Some weeks, Harrison was asked to be fast enough to keep up with a tight end. Other weeks, he had to bring a punishing attitude into the box to try to stop a running back. And on other occasions, he was required to simply play the role of a traditional safety, providing the last line of defense for the Patriots.
But after the jobs he’s handled over the first three weeks of the regular season, it appears New England found a worthy successor in Brandon McGowan. Last week against Atlanta, he handled tight end Tony Gonzalez, delivered a crushing hit on quarterback Matt Ryan and generally made life difficult for the rest of the Falcons offense.
The 26-year-old safety, in his first year with the Patriots, will likely be playing closer to the line than usual this week against the Ravens, keeping an eye on Baltimore tight end Todd Heap as well as running backs Willis McGahee and Ray Rice. The 5-foot-11, 207-pounder is fast becoming one of the great stories of the New England defense this season, and his “reckless” style (his description for how he plays the game) has endeared him to Patriots fans, as well as coach Bill Belichick.
“I think the more he’s played, the better he’s played,” Belichick said of the former Chicago safety, who was signed by the Patriots as a free agent on May 5 and has far exceeded expectations. “And the more impact he’s had on the game, the more you want him in there. And he’s done a good job.”
Here are four other things worth keeping an eye on Sunday:
New England is just 4-for-13 inside the red zone this season, including a 1-for-8 rate in the last two games. At this rate, the Patriots will make a Pro Bowler out of Stephen Gostkowski, but it will leave New England on the losing end of games against the NFL elite.
There isn’t one thing the Patriots can pinpoint for their struggles inside the opposition's 20 — it’s simply been a whole lot of bad football. Bad penalties, poor execution and miscommunication have all conspired to leave the New England offense stalled in the red zone.
“There are guys that are open and there are plays to be made, we’re just not making them,” said Tom Brady, who was 3-for-10 for 10 yards in the red zone on Sunday against Atlanta. “We all have to do a better job of focusing on the techniques down there, and how we’re trying to execute, and ultimately go out there and make the plays.”
This week, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns won’t do, but it shouldn’t get any easier — percentage-wise, Baltimore is the best team in the league at stopping teams in the red zone. Ravens opponents are 2-for-8 in touchdown opportunities when they get inside the Baltimore 20.
While things appear to be OK between Brady and his veteran receivers, there is clearly a disconnect between the quarterback and some of the newer receivers in the system. Last week, Joey Galloway ran out of the back of the end zone. Sam Aiken broke off a route before he should have. Julian Edelman dropped some passes. And Brady was seen on the sidelines venting — “It’s not that [bleeping] hard!” he could be seen saying on one occasion — after the errors led to field goals instead of touchdowns.
Brady can be faulted for some of that miscommunication, but if Wes Welker and Randy Moss aren’t at 100 percent, more responsibility will fall to the three receivers listed above.
“We’re getting used to each other. It’s not that I’m right and they’re wrong, we’re just on different pages at times,” Brady said. “That’s the way it is early in the year when you’ve never played together. With Wes out, we’ve got a lot of moving parts, and I think those guys are putting a ton of effort in and they’re working hard trying to do the right thing and they do the right thing.
“We’re not playing up to the level of ability that we have. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to get there. I believe we’ll keep working at it and get better and better.”
FABIAN WASHINGTON AND DOMONIQUE FOXWORTH
If there’s a weak spot in the Baltimore defense, it’s at cornerback. The Ravens allow a surprising average of 231.7 passing yards per game, thanks in large part to cornerbacks who can be thrown on. When throwing on Baltimore, keep one thing in mind — stay as far away as possible from Ed Reed. If you remember that, you should be good to go.
Washington and Foxworth are two corners who are known more for their speed and coverage abilities than their physicality, and have had trouble contesting larger receivers. If Moss is able to go this week and is near 100 percent physically, he could present a real matchup problem for the Baltimore defense.
But when it comes to advantages, the Patriots should not only be looking to exploit that matchup because of the physical edge Moss might have on either Washington or Foxworth. New England’s best bet when it comes to attacking the blitzing, aggressive Baltimore defense is to spread the field.
If Moss and Wes Welker are available, go three- and four-wide at the Ravens out of the shotgun, hitting them with short, quick passes. Beat the Baltimore pass rush with short, quick gains in the passing game 6, 7 and 8 yards at a time, and New England will be able to control the tempo and have a huge edge on the Ravens.
The 2009 Patriots have been exceptional at protecting the ball. They are one of two teams in the AFC that has yet to commit a fumble this season (conversely, they have forced three fumbles through three games). In addition, Brady has thrown just one interception in the last 10-plus quarters. (New England currently stands at plus-1 in the turnover department, tied for fifth-best in the AFC.)
However, the Patriots will be tested Sunday by a Baltimore defense that has a knack for being a ball-hawking, playmaking bunch. On the season, the Ravens have come away with six interceptions, good for third in the NFL. Safety Ed Reed — who has 44 interceptions since he entered the league in 2002 — always has to be accounted for.
“You don’t break the huddle and think, ‘Let’s just run this play without seeing where he’s at.’ He’ll be exactly where he’s supposed to be. It might not be what the defense was called to be, but he’ll be where the ball is,” Brady said of Reed.
“And that’s what makes him such a great player — it’s the things where it’s not really his responsibility, but he makes the play on the ball. Then, when you think he’s really undisciplined back there, you try to take advantage of it, and then he’s there right where he should be, playing his responsibility.”