by Christopher Price
Early last season, many believed the time had come for tight end Ben Watson to become a breakout star. With Deion Branch and David Givens gone, it was believed Watson had a real shot to become the No. 1 option in the New England passing game — and some even believed he could break the franchise record for most catches by a tight end.
“He could be a really dominant player,” said quarterback Tom Brady of the 6-foot-3, 255-pound tight end before the beginning of the 2006 season. “It’s up to him and how hard he works.”
However, Watson struggled at times, ending the season with 49 receptions. While he was second on the team in catches, it was considered a lost year for Watson for several reasons, not the least of which was that missed three games due to injury and because so much more was expected of the Georgia product.
But everything changed for Watson on April 29th when the Patriots traded for Randy Moss. The arrival of Moss gave New England a legitimate threat in the vertical game, one they didn’t have the last few years and one that demands constant attention from opposing defenses. As a result, the mere presence of Moss has allowed underneath receivers to benefit — even if Moss isn’t catching balls, his constant presence demands attention, and allows tight ends and slot receivers to flourish in single coverage.
On Sunday, the Browns specifically spent much of their defensive energies in trying to stop Moss. As a result, Watson was able to pick up the slack, finishing with six catches for 107 yards and two touchdowns.
“A lot of times we kind of feel it out in the beginning of the game with different personnel groups in there, and see how they’re going to play us,” said Watson, who also had an 11-yard run on a reverse, the first run from scrimmage for him in his NFL career. “It just so happened they were playing a lot of split safety, and I was able to get open a little bit.”
On both of his touchdown catches, Moss was on the same side of the field as Watson, drawing the bulk of the attention from defenders who were more concerned with No. 81 than they were with No. 84.
“It’s great having the opportunity,” said Watson, who registered the first 100-yard game of his career and brought his 2007 total to a career-high five touchdown receptions, four of which have come in red-zone situations. “That’s why you always have to be ready. You never know when your time is going to come to help out this team.”
“The great thing about Ben is that he has these games where they could be breakout games, and if you stop paying attention to Ben he really hurts you,” Brady said Sunday. “I think that was the situation on both of those touchdown passes, where they’re overplaying one thing, and you forget about Ben and he’s there to make the play.
“It’s another couple of touchdown [catches] for him. He’s a threat every time he’s in the red zone because he has great hands, he’s very elusive, and he gets open on the linebackers. I thought he had another great day.”
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THIS WEEK
1. The matchup between Asante Samuel and Terrell Owens. The Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback against the Cowboys’ No. 1 receiver should be one of the best individual matchups of not only the Patriots season, but the NFL in general.
2. How the Cowboys try to defend Randy Moss. Cleveland paid plenty of attention to Moss Sunday, rolling several coverage schemes toward Tom Brady’s No. 1 option in the passing game. It resulted in Moss’ lowest output of the season (three catches, 46 yards), but other offensive weapons like Watson and wide receiver Donte Stallworth (four catches, 65 yards, one touchdown) were able to step up and make plays. Will Dallas take the same chance, or will they use single coverage on Moss?
3. To see if anything comes of the Monday comments from Cleveland offensive lineman Eric Steinbach. The Browns’ offensive lineman told The Associated Press Monday he believes Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel should be fined for allegedly diving at the knee of Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas on a play with 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter. If the league believes a fine is in order, it would likely be levied on either Wednesday or Thursday.
4. If the short week has an impact on the Cowboys. In the days after the Monday Night win over the Bengals earlier this month, the Patriots talked a lot about how much playing on the road on Monday night can play havoc with the following week. The Cowboys face the same predicament this week, as they’re coming off an emotionally exhausting Monday game with the Bills in Buffalo.
5. How the Patriots go about working Rodney Harrison back into the starting lineup. Harrison was eased back into action slowly in his first week back from his suspension — he was on defense for nine first-half snaps and 23 second-half snaps. Expect those numbers to increase this week against the Cowboys. (And as a side note — its no coincidence that New England’s first red zone stop of the year coincided with Harrison’s return to the field.)
STAT OF THE WEEK
17. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the 2007 Patriots are the fourth team in NFL history to win each of its first five games by a margin of 17 points or more. The Patriots have won by 24, 24, 31, 21 and 17 points in their five games this season. The other teams to achieve the feat are the 1999 St. Louis Rams, the 1968 Dallas Cowboys and the 1921 Buffalo All-Americans.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Coming back was nice, but who wants to come back to a whupping?” – Cleveland linebacker Willie McGinest, who returned to New England for the first time since he departed for the Browns after the end of the 2005 season.
Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. His book “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower” will be released Oct. 16 by Thomas Dunne Books. He can be reached at [email protected].