FOXBORO, Mass. -- The rest of the NFL is rediscovering the 3-4 defense. So what are the New England Patriots doing? They're going back to a 4-3 setup.
No one in the Patriots' locker room here late Thursday night was saying that the move was permanent. But they went to a four-linemen, three-linebacker alignment after they struggled in their three-linemen, four-linebacker scheme early in the season opener, surrendering a touchdown on the Oakland Raiders' first drive. The change helped the Patriots to shut down the Raiders in the second half on their way to a 30-20 triumph at Gillette Stadium.
"We executed it pretty well," Coach Bill Belichick said. "I thought we could have done all right in the 3-4. We just got off to a rocky start."
The Patriots, as usual, were a step ahead of everyone else.
"When we went to a 4-3, it gave them some problems," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "We're going to make changes every week -- between series and on the fly."
The Patriots have helped to re-popularize the 3-4 defense, winning three of the past four Super Bowls with a cast of versatile defenders -- like Vrabel -- who bring Belichick's Xs-and-Os wizardry to life. With the passing game being so wide-open around the league these days, most teams figure it's better to have another athletic linebacker on the field in the place of a bulky defensive tackle. Pass-rushing outside linebackers were in demand in the NFL draft last spring.
The Patriots entered Thursday's game with plenty of questions about their defense after losing their coordinator (Romeo Crennel) and two of their best players (cornerback Ty Law and inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi) in the offseason. The early returns Thursday weren't promising, as the Raiders went 72 yards in only six plays on their first possession. When quarterback Kerry Collins connected with wide receiver Randy Moss for a 73-yard touchdown just over six minutes into the second quarter, Oakland had a 14-10 lead.
The Patriots, though, reclaimed the lead before halftime on quarterback Tom Brady's second touchdown pass of the evening, and New England took control of the game in the second half. The Patriots' defense made the key play, as reserve end Jarvis Green's strong pass rush produced a third-quarter interception by nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Green knocked the ball loose from Collins's hand and the unintended pass went straight to Wilfork. That set up the first of two second-half touchdown runs by Patriots tailback Corey Dillon.
"I didn't see him," Collins said. "I was just about to get rid of the ball and throw it away, and I got hit. My goal was not to have any turnovers . . . because I knew that's what it would take to beat these guys. It was a disappointing play."
Collins ended up throwing for 265 yards and three touchdowns, but he completed only 18 of 40 passes. Still, the Patriots were disappointed in their play on defense, comparing it to their sluggish outing against the Indianapolis Colts in last season's Thursday-night opening game.
"It was not up to par," safety Rodney Harrison said. "It was the same as last year. We didn't play a complete game. We gave them some easy touchdowns. We didn't really play our game. Fortunately, we were able to get a victory."
Said Vrabel: "Our worst game last year was opening night against the Colts. We need to take this and build on it and move forward. We think we're a better defense than what we showed . . . but we need to go out and prove it."
Belichick is paying more attention to the offense than he has in past seasons. But, yet again, he and his assistants pushed the right defensive buttons Thursday. Belichick said using the 4-3 had been in Thursday's game plan all along, although he perhaps hadn't intended to use it so early or so often.
"We need to do better," he said. "I need to do better. We need to do better collectively as a football team. We kind of stumbled around there on a few things . . . . It's going to catch up to us if we don't watch out. But it's good to win."
Said Raiders tailback LaMont Jordan: "They made adjustments [and] we left a lot of yards out there. There's a reason they've been the champions three of the last four years. I knew coming in we had to make the most of our opportunities and minimize mistakes because one thing they do is take advantage of your mistakes."
Moss Strikes Quickly
Moss finished with five catches for 130 yards in his first game with the Raiders. He said the Patriots covered him with two or three defenders 95 percent of the time. He made them pay when they didn't, exploiting the one-on-one coverage of cornerback Tyrone Poole for his touchdown.
"It was pretty awesome," Collins said. "Any time we get a one-on-one situation with him, we're going to take a shot. He's one of the few guys that can make that play."
But Moss said: "I can't hang my hat on that because we lost . . . . This is a team sport. We just didn't get it done. We just need to come back next week and keep fighting."
Moss didn't emerge thinking anything less of his new team, however.
"I can honestly say I think we're going to see New England again," he said. "New England is not a C-average team. They're A-plus. For us to come at them and put them back on their heels some of the time like that, that's something you can really smile about."
The Raiders did themselves in by committing 16 penalties, and Moss said: "I don't want to say anything to get me fined. The one thing I can say is when we started moving the ball up and down the field, the yellow flags came out." . . .
Brady had 212 of his 306 passing yards in the first half, then was more patient in the second half as Oakland used more defensive formations with five or six defensive backs.
"I thought Tom did a good job managing the game, especially opening night," Belichick said. "You're going to get a couple different looks." . . . The Patriots extended their home winning streak to 21 games and improved to 25-3 overall at Gillette Stadium . . . .
The win was Belichick's 100th as an NFL head coach. He improved his overall record (including the playoffs) to 100-72. He's 63-27 with the Patriots after going 37-45 with the Cleveland Browns.
Westbrook Says Negotiations Are Off
Eagles tailback Brian Westbrook met with reporters Thursday in Philadelphia and said, in his first public comments since ending his holdout early in training camp, that he and his agent, Fletcher Smith, had cut off negotiations with the club on a long-term contract.
It always sounds dire when a player says he's ended negotiations, but the words usually are meaningless. What they really mean is that the team hasn't yet offered the player what he's seeking. Does anyone believe that if the Eagles tell Westbrook today they're willing to pay him exactly what he wants, he would decline because he had called off negotiations?
Westbrook signed the one-year, $1.43 million contract that the Eagles tendered to him during restricted free agency in the offseason. He held out from training camp for a week, then reported by the deadline for players under contract to join their teams in order to be credited with a season toward their free-agent status. Westbrook is eligible for unrestricted free agency in the spring, but the Eagles probably would use their franchise-player tag to keep him off the market if they can't sign him to a long-term deal first.
The negotiations are tricky because Westbrook apparently is seeking a deal along the lines of those signed by Clinton Portis with the Washington Redskins ($50.5 million over eight seasons, including $17 million in bonuses) and Deuce McAllister with the New Orleans Saints ($50.1 million over eight seasons, including $12.5 million in bonuses). LaDainian Tomlinson is the NFL's highest-paid running back, having signed an eight-year, $60 million contract with the San Diego Chargers that included $21 million in bonuses.
The problem is, Westbrook is not the sort of workhorse runner that Portis, McAllister and Tomlinson are. He is, however, one of the league's most dangerous offensive players as a two-way threat, catching the ball out of the backfield as well as running with it, and the Eagles can ill afford to part with him next offseason. It seems likely that they will be saying their goodbyes to wide receiver Terrell Owens after this season, and they won't want to lose two of their top three offensive players in the same offseason.
The Eagles tried to negotiate a long-term contract with Westbrook before training camp, and seemed willing then to give him about $9 million in bonuses as part of a multi-year deal . . . .
Tailback Tiki Barber signed a two-year contract extension with the New York Giants that runs through the 2008 season. His previous deal was to pay him about $8.5 million over the next two seasons. The new contract adds approximately $3 million to that total, then is worth a total of about $11 million over the 2007 and 2008 seasons . . . .
The Dallas Cowboys will be without rookie linebacker Kevin Burnett for one to three weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery . . . .
Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells said during his news briefing Thursday that he will allow assistant head coach Sean Payton to handle the club's play-calling duties. Parcells said the last time he wasn't his team's offensive play-caller came in the early '90s when he was coaching the Patriots . . . .
The league reduced its suspension of Colts safety Mike Doss from two games to one game. Doss had appealed the penalty. He was suspended under the NFL's personal-conduct policy after pleading no contest to a gun-related charge . . . .
The Carolina Panthers are giving 350 tickets to Sunday's game against the Saints in Charlotte, N.C., to Hurricane Katrina evacuees. There reportedly are about 800 evacuees in Charlotte . . . .
Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre needs 266 passing yards Sunday at Detroit to join Dan Marino and John Elway as the only NFL players with 50,000 career passing yards. Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe needs 192 passing yards at San Diego to become the 10th player to reach 40,000 yards . . . .
Tomlinson has rushed for a touchdown in 12 straight games and can tie the NFL record of 13 held by John Riggins and George Rogers.