Most improved: Running game or defense?

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Most improved: Running game or defense?

The Patriots did two things really well on Sunday that they didn't do in more than spurts last season: run the ball and defend well.

Mike Felger likes the way the Pats ran the ball, saying that it not only helps the offensive line who is still working on protecting Brady, but it also takes pressure off of Brady.

Andy Gresh notes that it makes the Pats much more complimentary in terms of the pass and the run together.

But is a run game the missing ingredient to a Super Bowl win? Or is it defense? Most likely, it's both.

Brady shows competitive attitude in Wednesday's joint practice

Brady shows competitive attitude in Wednesday's joint practice

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia – Tom Brady’s legendary competitive streak was on display late in Wednesday’s joint practice with the Texans. Executing an end of the half drill, Brady hurried his team to the line of scrimmage and got the defense he wanted. Perhaps over-amped, he misfired on a mid-range out pattern near the Patriots sideline, throwing the ball just past the extended hands of Rob Gronkowski. Immediately, Brady’s hands went to his helmet, his shoulders slumped. 

“I mean we've got to make that play,” said Brady after the session. “It’s got to be a better throw. We've just got to come up with it. Sometimes you get the exact look you want versus a certain play and it’s not a productive play. Those are the ones that you kick yourself on. Then there’s some plays where they’ve got the right defense called versus what you have called and sometimes an incompletion – that’s what it is. Plays where it really should be a completion and a big gain, those are the ones you’ve got to come up with."

That Brady reacted like he did, on a mid-August day some three weeks from the season opener is just another reason why he is who is he. It also punctuated by far and away the most intense pair of days this training camp has seen, and the emotional Brady didn’t hold back, emoting at nearly every turn, directing those feelings to everyone: teammates, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Texan defenders and even members of the Houston coaching staff. 

“Yeah, I'm always pretty frustrated throughout the day in practices,” he said. “You’re just trying to create some urgency. I ask guys to dig a little deeper. It goes like that. Sometimes things don’t go great in the first quarter of games, sometimes they don’t go great in the first half, sometimes they don’t go great for the first three quarters, but you’ve got to keep grinding. You’ve got to keep digging deeper. A lot of times football is a lot about momentum. Things don’t go well early and then you find a little rhythm, start making some plays, scoring some points and then you can rattle off 28 points. That’s football.”

One doesn’t have to look too far back to find the Pats reeling off 28 off unanswered points. Super Bowl 51 ring a bell? In order to even get to that game, Brady and the Pats had to overcome the Texans in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, a closer than it appeared 18-point victory that saw Houston’s defense do something that few ever manage: they picked off Brady twice and held him to under 50% passing. Though Brady says last season is over and dead, that memory lingers.

“I think what you realize with this team is they're not going to make it easy on you,” he noted. “There is no easy play, there is no easy throw, there is no easy run. They’ve got good players, they’ve got a good scheme, so it’s really challenging and has forced us to raise our game.”

And if the Pats didn’t grasp that concept on their own this week, Brady made sure he brought it to their attention early and often.

La Russa, Crean appear as Belichick's guests at Patriots camp

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La Russa, Crean appear as Belichick's guests at Patriots camp

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia – About 5 minutes prior to his media availability at the Greenbriar in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Bill Belichick emerged from the gleaming white sports complex with his right-hand man Berj Najarian in tow.

Nothing unusual there. But what happened next was. The appearance of legendary manager Tony La Russa and former Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean.

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They followed Belichick to his press conference and quickly became the topic of conversation when I asked the Patriots head coach if he was picking their brains prior to the practice. Belichick lit up.

“Yeah, we brought in a couple of big righties from the bullpen that can really throw hard and close it,” he said with a smile and laugh.

Belichick would expand on his relationship with both men. He met La Russa through author/writer Buzz Bissinger, who just so happened to go to high school with Belichick. Thus began a beautiful friendship.

“I’ll never forget the time he let me get in the dugout with him for an exhibition game,” Belichick recalled. “Baseball -- it seems like just throw it and hit it but there's a lot more to it than that. I saw just how much there is on every single pitch and the focus, concentration, all of that. . .  Different sports but Tony is very progressive. He had a great career as a manager, won a couple thousand games. I can't imagine what that's like but it must be pretty good. We've talked a lot about coaching teams, coaching players, dealing with different situations. He's been in a lot of big games, a lot of championships, World Series, things like that, different organizations. He's helped me a lot and given me a lot of insight."

La Russa doesn’t see it that way, noting there was a big difference in the way the two interacted.

"All I know is that when we're together, I'm asking the questions, he's talking and I'm taking notes,” said the former Cardinals skipper. “He's not taking my notes.”

La Russa, who’s now an advisor with the Arizona Diamondbacks, marvels at Belichick’s consistency in building his team year in and year out.

“I believe his ability and his staff's ability, and his team's ability to start at zero every year -- refuse to think about last year -- is an important part of why they are so consistent,” he admired. “It's true in our sport, too, like what Bobby Cox did in Atlanta. It's easy to celebrate the next year. The ability to turn the clock to zero is really impressive and very hard."

As for Crean, letting him attend practice is a great show of trust by Belichick. Crean is, after all, married to a Harbaugh. Yes, as in John and Jim. In fact, Crean was due in Baltimore’s training camp in the coming days.

"I've had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with Tom, watched him at Indiana,” said Belichick. “Again, different sport but I learned a lot from his organization. We speak pretty frequently. Different motivations, teachings, [but] coaching is coaching, even though the sport is different. Players are players, and there are different things you can do to help them. He is a very progressive guy."

Crean’s personality is contagious. He could sell you the car you already own, and had a few reporters ready to ditch our current careers and go back to whatever college he ends up at next. He’s clearly thought a lot about what makes Belichick special, and wasn’t afraid to share his thoughts on the subject.

"Everything matters every day,” said Crean. “As simple as that sounds, it's very complex and hard because there are so many things that can distract that, can interrupt that, can get in the way of it. When I think of fundamentals, and preaching the fundamentals and details on a day-to-day basis -- and then watching it come out in his team -- that's one place you're going to look. He leaves nothing to chance. It would be hard to imagine something missing his radar or the people that are around him. . . He's been very, very good to me, very helpful. I think that's one of the reasons he's such a great leader, great developer of teams, programs, players. He's always inquisitive -- he's helpful. You can get an idea of how great he is with his team because of the way he helps his friends."

When asked if he ever taught Belichick anything - as the Pats coach said - Crean laughed and quickly dismissed the notion. Regardless, it’s clear that Belichick has never been shy about expanding his horizons - sports, business leaders, ex-players, current ones - all in the name of improving as a coach and - as important - improving his team. There’s no disputing it’s worked. Look at all those rings.