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Thursday Morning 3rd and Long: The Emergence of Mark Anderson

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Is vindication a choice word to use in describing the feeling for Patriots fans everywhere (and possibly Patriots players as well) when New England thrashed the Denver Broncos this past Sunday?

Hopefully I'm not the only one who felt vindicated after weeks of hype and build-up to a matchup between a legend and a rising star; a team on a hot streak versus a team in the midst of a dominant decade.

There were many stars of this game- Chad Ochocinco finally catching a touchdown pass in red,white, and blue; Aaron Hernandez having his finest performance of the season and juking defensive backs out of their taped ankles, Mark Anderson answering the call when his compatriot (pun intended) Andre Carter was carted off the field after being graced by the Tebow's hand, and oh yeah- Tom Brady. Of course, there's always Tom Brady.

I began screaming in tongues when Ochocinco caught his touchdown pass. Maybe it will be the only one he catches all season, but VINDICATION! Those who have clung to the bandwagon for the formerly outspoken athlebrity (and yes, I've had my resolve shaken multiple times) despite the best efforts of the New England media to skewer #85 must have felt the same way I did. If you're a Patriot fan, you want Chad to succeed. If you're a Patriot fan, you know that New England has a better shot at winning a fourth ring if Ochocinco performs. Hopefully this is a sign that things are coming together, if only for a few plays a game.

Before this season, I was convinced that while Rob Gronkowski would be the premier red zone target for the Patriots, Aaron Hernandez would be the more dependable tight end on the roster. That "Herndo" would be the chain-mover, and Brady's closest simulation of a Dallas Clark. Though he's made contributions throughout the season, and has the receptions to prove it, Aaron's star has been dwarved by Rob Gronkowski. Sunday showed that while New England boasts the best tight end in the league, their second option is far better than most teams first options as well.

I saw the Andre Carter injury coming. Not necessarily Andre himself, but I had a sinking feeling that there was going to be another injury- since the defensive line was the only area of New England's defense that hadn't been hit hard by the injury bug, I dreaded the worst.

Don't get me wrong- Andre going down is awful. He's an irreplaceable player for so many reasons- character, professionalism, work ethic, motor- but championship teams need to overcome these sort of injuries in order to define themselves.

Which brings me to the real reason that I'm unconcerned by Carter's injury- Mark Anderson.

I've been on the Anderson train for a few weeks now- one of the few to recognize how important his presence was, even for Carter. Anderson has quietly racked up 9 sacks on the season, and his 2 on Sunday came with a forced fumble- one he recovered! He is a tremendous, unheralded acquisition that was signed in an effort to silence the PASS RUSH! crowd in the offseason, and Mark's done his part. Despite a career stumble after leaving Chicago and Houston, Mark has been reinvigorated this year- maybe he's not an every down player, but when he's in the game, he makes an impact.

The talk of the preseason was the shift from a 3-4 to a 4-3 front, brought about when Bill Belichick traded for Albert Haynesworth and signed an aging defensive end that rode the bench for most of his last season in Washington. Carter was one of the only reasons that the Patriots had stayed in the 4-3 for so long; he was fantastic against the run, but could also get upfield when necessary. Him going down in the same game as the Patriots being forced to revert into a 3-4 gapping scheme to combat Denver's running offense was probably just coincidence- but maybe more?

Let's examine a list of possible opponents for the Patriots in the playoffs- Houston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Denver, Oakland, Cincinnati, New York.

Foster, Mendenhall, Rice, Tebow/McGahee, McFadden, Benson, Greene.

Is the picture starting to become clearer?

With the exception of the Steelers, none of these teams are high-flying offenses. We can make arguments for their athletes on the offensive side, especially in Pittsburgh, Houston, Baltimore, and New York's case, but the fact of the matter is that these teams are much more effective if they can run the ball. The best offensive player for each of these teams is their running back. The only exception is Pittsburgh- but does anyone really fear the Steelers if Ben Roethlisberger is heading into the playoffs on one leg?

The first time the Patriots will truly face a "high-flying offense," or at least one that has an exceptional passing offense, would be the Super Bowl- against an NFC squad- Green Bay, New Orleans, Detroit, and the NFC East teams as outside shots.

Even if Andre Johnson is healthy, I'm not intimidated by T.J. Yates. The Patriots came down to the wire against the Giants, and beat the Cowboys in a surprising defense-oriented affair.

Yes, the Patriots have had their struggles in the secondary this year, but those struggles have been offset by turnovers and the teams seems to have found a better combination of coverage in the last few weeks- they've yet to play a full 60 minutes, but if Bill Belichick himself has raved on multiple occasions about the mental toughness of his team, who am I to disagree?

Does everyone see where I'm going with this?

The road to the AFC Championship in to 2011-2012 season for the Patriots is going to be paved with stopping the run. As everyone could see on Sunday, the Patriots have their best shot at stopping teams on the ground with a base 3-4 defense.

And that is why I'm so excited to see what Mark Anderson can bring to the table in an outside linebacker position. He has been extremely effective as a sub pass rusher in the nickel defense, but a transition to a base 3-4 will in no way inhibit that. If anything, starting Mark in the outside position might allow him to become more in tune to the game as he's on the field for longer.

On the opposite side of Anderson, we have Rob Ninkovich- yes, he struggled early against the Broncos, but Rob is on pace for a career year in terms of making plays and was close to stopping Tim Tebow multiple times on Sunday. He'll have to work on his tackling, definitely- but Rob has proven to be above-average in coverage, stopping the run, and also getting pressure on the quarterback.

If Brandon Spikes is able to return to full strength, we have him and Jerod Mayo to anchor the middle of the field. Not too shabby, in my opinion, as both have shown to have also made strides in every facet of their game this season.

The rotation of our defensive tackles is another reason I think the Patriots should move towards a base 3-4 for the rest of the season. Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick, Gerard Warren, Ron Brace, and Shaun Ellis are all above-average defensive tackles. With the rotation of a 4-3 base, Warren, Ellis, and Brace rarely saw the field. But when liberally rotated, as in the Denver game, they were able to show how deep New England is at the defensive tackle position.

Love made some crushing hits in stopping the run, and often times was able to bully himself through double teams to establish a line of scrimmage. Nothing needs to be said about Vince Wilfork. Brandon Deaderick is a good pass-rushing tackle that is average against the run- but caused a fumble in the end zone that nearly lead to a safety or a defensive score! Ron Brace showed his brute strength in clubbing Lance Ball's arms for a second quarter fumble. Gerard Warren was able to continually push the pocket for Tim Tebow, and registered a sack in the fourth quarter. So that leaves Shaun Ellis, who's definitely having a subpar year. However, would anyone be surprised to see Shaun make impact plays in the playoffs?

If all of these defensive tackles are impact players, than how could it hurt the Patriots to have them rotating in and out in leading up to the playoffs?

If the Patriots get out to a decent lead, as they've done often, they'll most likely go back to a nickel 4-2-5 package. But Rob Ninkovich has been seeing increased snaps at the defensive end position, as has Mark Anderson. This means that if Ninkovich and Anderson are the starting outside linebackers, they won't need to come off the field for sub packages. This bodes very well for the chemistry of the front-seven leading into the playoffs- and also for Mark's chances to get resigned going into 2012.