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A postgame buffet was under way near the victorious Patriots' locker room on Sunday when Fred Taylor, forehead bruised, right elbow scraped raw, slipped through a black curtain, down a breezeway and into New England's autumn mist. Seven months ago Taylor was cast adrift by the Jacksonville Jaguars, the one professional franchise he'd ever known, only to be rescued by Bill Belichick, tossed into his stable of running backs and asked to learn the Patriot Way. ¶ "I've never been one of those guys who was hard to coach," said the 33-year-old Taylor, who spent 11 years with Jacksonville and entered this season 16th on the alltime rushing list, with 11,271 yards. "I just try to listen, ask a lot of questions and fall in line. I think I'm finally getting comfortable in my role."
On Sunday, Taylor was at the center of a 26--10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons that had Belichick's fingerprints all over it. Coming off a disheartening loss to the New York Jets that saw Tom Brady hurried and harassed, Belichick swapped out a quick-hitting passing attack in favor of a punishing downhill ground game. The result was a near-perfect balance: 42 throws and 39 runs (compared with 47 and 20, respectively, the previous week), 105 rushing yards for Taylor and the steadying of a team that had shown signs of buckling.
"Last week we were in shotgun no-huddle, this week we were in a lot of two tight [end] and different formations," said Patriots left guard Logan Mankins. "We're used to [switching]. All the guys here can do multiple things. We're not just big, fat guys that are good at one thing."
New England isn't the pinballing, turnover-creating, fear-inducing squad that went 16--0 in the 2007 regular season and set an NFL record for scoring. Instead, Belichick is retooling a team in transition. One year after losing Brady to a knee injury (and still squeezing an 11--5 record out of backup quarterback Matt Cassel), Belichick's challenges in 2009 are more nuanced but still daunting. His offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, left in the off-season (for Denver, the fourth Patriots coordinator in recent years to take a head-coaching job), as did the team's longtime vice president of player personnel, Scott Pioli (now the Chiefs' general manager). Leaders have been lost to retirement (linebacker Tedy Bruschi, safety Rodney Harrison), trades (defensive end Richard Seymour to Oakland, linebacker Mike Vrabel to Kansas City) and injury (middle linebacker Jerod Mayo sprained his right knee in the season opener; slot receiver Wes Welker has missed two games with an injured right knee). Against the Falcons, New England sent out eight defensive starters who were not in the starting lineup in Week 3 of 2008, including three of the four linebackers and the entire secondary.
"The 'backerhood is getting new 'backers," says Pierre Woods, who, in his fourth season, is the team's second-longest tenured linebacker. "Some guys come in that you know, some you don't. Some stay, some go. That's just part of the business."
If history is a guide, what might appear to be a hodgepodge of rookies and veterans will jell into a formidable unit over the course of the season. Harrison, an NBC analyst who has remained close to the Patriots since retiring in June, says his conversations with his former teammates reveal no panic as new players and schemes are incorporated.
"In the short run [New England] could struggle through trial and error, but Bill is willing to go through that for the long-term benefit of the team," Harrison says. "Bill always talked about wanting to build a smart team that's physical and plays well under pressure. He's always reworking the roster, bringing in the guys he wants, like Randy Moss, Corey Dillon and myself—guys who have come in late in their careers, been unselfish, played hard and been mentally tough. You'll be able to see it. The film doesn't lie."
Belichick has always been hands-on, but on Sunday he had a death grip on the game plan. He harped all week about keeping All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez under wraps (Gonzalez had one catch), drew up a play on the sideline that Brady and tight end Chris Baker improvised upon, resulting in a 36-yard touchdown pass, and successfully rolled the dice twice on fourth down in the third quarter, including from New England's own 24 with a 16--10 lead. "That was kinda crazy," Baker said later with a laugh.
Despite all the shake-ups, the Patriots have not lost back-to-back games in almost three years. That's the kind of mark players both old and new respect and want to extend. Cornerback Shawn Springs, who spent seven years with Seattle and five with the Redskins before joining New England six months ago, has fully bought into Belichick's methods—and mystique. "He can coach everything," Springs says. "He's just like a brain walking around on some legs."
With Brady and the offense struggling for touchdowns, Belichick has had to be especially adept with his defense. While Mayo, a first-round pick in 2008, is expected to return at some point this season, his athleticism at middle linebacker is missed at a time when Belichick, who typically runs a 3--4 defense, has been drawing up more 4--3 fronts. But after some hiccups in the first two weeks, the defense appears to be starting to take. Second-year linebacker Gary Guyton, filling in for Mayo, leads the team in tackles, with 21. Despite an entirely rebuilt secondary, the Patriots are seventh in the league in pass defense. New England shut out the high-powered Falcons offense in the second half.